Native leadership for the US Department of the Interior

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called it a “truly a historic and unprecedented day for all Indigenous people.”

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SOURCEYES! Magazine
Image Credit: Michael S.Anaya-Gorman/Albuquerque Journal

President-elect Joe Biden has chosen U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior. If confirmed by the Senate, the New Mexico Democrat would make history as the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary.

Haaland, who is from the Pueblos of Laguna and Jemez, became one of the first two Native women elected to Congress in 2018.

The Interior Department is tasked with protecting the nation’s natural resources and honoring the government’s federal trust responsibilities. It manages America’s vast public lands and coastal waters while overseeing prominent departments such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education. The agency employs 70,000 people.

Haaland’s nomination has been backed by many Indigenous leaders, advocates, and allies for weeks.

More than 130 tribal leaders collaborated to write letters to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, citing Haaland’s bipartisan leadership. Native organizations including NDN Collective and IllumiNative created online campaigns, and celebrities like Mark Ruffalo have offered support on social media.

Many shared their election Thursday as news of the decision spread.

“The nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland—a champion of the environment and of Native people—heralds a new era of conservation, progress and healing in the Department of the Interior that is long overdue,” said Gussie Lord, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Tribal Partnerships Program, which focuses on our representation of tribes and Indigenous communities. “We wholeheartedly endorse this nomination and believe that her leadership will result in policies that are protective of this nation’s natural and cultural heritage.”

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called it a “truly a historic and unprecedented day for all Indigenous people.”

“I congratulate her, and I also thank the Biden-Harris team for making a statement and keeping their word to place Native Americans in high-level cabinet positions,” he said in a statement. “I am looking forward to continuing to work with Congresswoman Haaland and the Biden-Harris administration in the years to come.”

The National Native American Law Student Association tweeted that it was “ecstatic” about the nomination of Haaland, a former member and mentor. “We trust in her focused energy and experience, and know she will do amazing things for our county!”

Many of Haaland’s colleagues in Congress also had rallied behind her. In mid-November, more than 50 House Democrats penned a letter to the Biden transition team backing her for the post.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added her support.

“Congresswoman Haaland knows the territory, and if she is the president-elect’s choice for an Interior secretary, then he will have made an excellent choice,” Pelosi said in a statement. 

Haaland’s selection was confirmed by a person familiar with the decision who wasn’t authorized to speak about it publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity on Thursday.

She was chosen for the post over former Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor, Taos Pueblo, and two U.S. senators from New Mexico: Tom Udall, who is retiring, and Martin Heinrich. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico was offered the job but turned it down, according to The Hill.

Udall issued a statement Thursday congratulating Haaland and voicing his confidence in her leadership.

“Congresswoman Haaland is fully qualified to lead the Department of the Interior—through her service in the Congress, to the state of New Mexico and to Indian Country, and through her lived experience,” he said. “I know it will be significant and meaningful for Native Americans, especially Native women, to see Secretary Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, leading the department that is tasked with meeting many of our responsibilities to Tribes and managing inherently Indigenous land. This is a watershed moment for Native communities, and for our nation.”

Haaland had been cited saying she would accept a nomination as Interior secretary, including in an October interview with Indian Country Today. 

“I think it’s nice that people are thinking about me. And of course, if I ever had an opportunity to step up and do good work for this district, for the state of New Mexico, for our country, I would always be proud to do that,” Haaland said.

In her first term in Congress, Haaland has held leadership positions on a number of committees, now serving as vice chair of the Committee on Natural Resources and chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. She also sits on the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples, the House Armed Services Committee, the Subcommittee on Readiness, and the Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

She previously worked as head of New Mexico’s Democratic Party, as tribal administrator and as an administrator for an organization providing services for adults with developmental disabilities.

Biden, who has pledged to pick a diverse leadership team, said at a Native candidate forum in January that he would nominate and appoint people who “look like the country they serve, including Native Americans.”

The pick breaks a 245-year record of non-Native officials, mostly male, serving as the top federal official over Indian affairs in a federal government that worked to dispossess them of their land and, until recently, assimilate them into White culture.

It could also further deplete, at least temporarily, the narrow majority Democrats maintain in the House. Biden has already selected several lawmakers from the chamber, including Louisiana’s U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond and Ohio’s U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, to serve in his administration. 

Interior’s broad authority includes managing federal relations with tribes, administering tens of millions of acres of land and mineral rights held in trust for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, running national parks, and making decisions affecting millions of miles of U.S. lands and waterways, wildlife, endangered species, and oil and gas, and mining.

Biden has promised the nation’s broadest effort yet to curb the oil, gas, and coal emissions that are causing the rapid deterioration of the climate, and Interior would play an important part in that.

This story originally appeared in Indian Country Today, and is republished here with permission.

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