In a historic pick for Native Americans, President-elect Joe Biden tapped New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as his nominee for interior secretary. Her selection breaks a 245-year record of non-Native officials serving as the top federal official over American Indian affairs.
If confirmed by the senate, Haaland will become the first Native American to lead the powerful federal agency that has wielded influence over the nation’s tribes for generations. For centuries, the federal government actually worked to dispossess Native Americans of their land and, until recently, to assimilate them into white culture. Haaland's appointment to interior secretary would effectively bring the position full circle.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee explains that “For years, its legacy was the disenfranchisement of the Native people of this country, of displacement, of cultural genocide.” Based on her political career and voting track record, Haaland looks set to use her position to represent and empower Indigenous people and to advocate for the environment.
What has Haaland achieved already?
Haaland previously worked as head of New Mexico’s Democratic Party, as a Tribal Administrator, and as an administrator for an organization providing services for adults with developmental disabilities.
Haaland fought alongside Indigenous activists during the Standing Rock protests to protect tribal sovereignty against the Dakota Access Pipeline. As a member of Congress, Haaland has been the vice-chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and the chair of the subcommittee on national parks, forests, and public lands. She also sits on the subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.
What does an interior secretary do?
Haaland will be in charge of overseeing roughly 500 million acres of surface land (one-fifth of the land in the US), as well as 1.7 billion acres of land off the nation’s shores. Biden and Harris have already outlined a plan to strengthen tribal nations and address key issues from health disparities and environmental injustice that Indigenous communities continue to face. Haaland's secretarial remit will encompass; the restoration of tribal lands, addressing climate change, and safeguarding natural and cultural resources.
Are we going to see greater Indigenous representation in the future?
Probably. Until recently, the highest-ranking administration official known to have Native American heritage was Charles Curtis, who served as Herbert Hoover’s vice president and whose mother was one-quarter Kaw tribe.
The 2020 general election saw a record-breaking number of candidates of Native American heritage win their congressional races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Greater visibility of Indigenous leaders and the proper implementation of the Plan for Tribal Nations mean that more Native Americans could be represented at the federal level in the future.
What will she do?
Haaland’s appointment is “incredibly important, not just from a symbolic perspective, but also from a perspective of environmental stewardship, conservation, restoring a sense of public good and public trust,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy for Data for Progress, and a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen in Canada’s British Columbia, told Vox.
Unfortunately, the task ahead of Haaland and the office of the Interior is a difficult one, because the Trump administration effectively used the department to expedite tracking permits and the selling leases of public land for fossil fuel operations. Haaland has committed to undoing that damage; “Part of what needs to happen is just to make sure that we are putting back all of those scientists," she told Vox, "all of those folks who are on the front lines, working to protect our environment immediately.”