President-elect Joe Biden has nominated Deb Haaland, a first-term congresswoman from New Mexico and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, to lead the U.S. Department. of the Interior (DOI). If confirmed, Haaland would make history as the first Indigenous person to serve as a Cabinet secretary, and she would be running an agency with a long history of attacks against Native American lands, culture, and families. Haaland would also be taking over an Interior Department that has veered wildly off course during the four years of the Trump administration and finds itself in desperate need of sound guidance and strong leadership.
“It’s profound to think about the history of this country’s policies to exterminate Native Americans and the resilience of our ancestors that gave me a place here today,” said Haaland in a statement after her nomination.
Haaland has already made history; in 2018 she was one of the first two Native American women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (an honor she shares with congresswoman Sharice Davids of Kansas). Though she’s been in office for just two years, Haaland is no political novice. Before winning her House seat, she spent eight years as a key player in New Mexico politics, first as chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico’s Native American Caucus, and later as chairwoman of the entire Democratic Party of New Mexico itself. During her tenure Democrats made significant gains statewide, earning her plaudits as a skilled tactician.
Haaland is currently the vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. She also serves on the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States and the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, the latter of which she chairs. Taken together, these assignments provide keen insights into the issues that make up the everyday business of the DOI, which oversees half a billion acres of land and more than three times as many acres offshore.
Notably, among the various bureaus managed by the DOI is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA has administrative authority over 55 million acres of land that are held in trust by the U.S. government for use by Native Americans—an authority that the agency egregiously abused under President Trump.
The significance of having an Indigenous person lead the 171-year-old Department of the Interior can hardly be overstated. When news broke that Biden had tapped Haaland for the position, social media erupted with praise for the decision, with many posters noting the department’s historic complicity in the dislocation and genocide of Native Americans and expressing sincere hope that Haaland’s appointment will signify the beginning of a new era. Elizabeth Kronk Warner, the dean of the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law and a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa tribe, told the New York Times that it would mark the moment Native Americans go “from being classified as a group of people that the federal government was trying to destroy to having a president say, ‘I see you and value you to the point that I will raise you to the highest level of decision-making in the country.’ ”
Under President Trump, the DOI has been instrumental in opening up public lands—including national monuments and lands that have been sacred to local tribes for thousands of years—to oil and gas development. In one of his final acts before leaving office, Trump is directing his Interior Department to rush through oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, knowing that federal leases granted by one presidential administration are notoriously difficult for later administrations to break. (President-elect Biden has said that he will put an end to the new leasing of public lands to oil and gas developers.)
Reversing the damage that’s already been done by an administration beholden to corporate interests won’t be easy. And Haaland will likely have an even harder time rebuilding the culture of the Department of the Interior so that it better represents U.S. society and is accountable to the ideals of justice and equity. But she certainly can begin these processes and will, one hopes, be given the resources needed to see them through.
“We have a whole entire department in the federal government that needs to be dismantled in many ways, because the history is that [Interior] was created as a place to extract resources from public lands and Indigenous people,” Nick Tilsen, the CEO of NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led activist organization, told Vox. “Is [Haaland] somebody that would be able to change the system? Absolutely.”
And if she does successfully turn things around at DOI, Deb Haaland will make history yet again.
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