A voice never heard before: The historic significance behind Biden's interior secretary pick

Erik Ortiz

President-elect Joe Biden's selection of Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., to lead the Department of the Interior — potentially the first Native American to do so and serve as a Cabinet secretary — is being celebrated across Native American groups and viewed as a fresh start for tribal relations with the federal government.

The Interior Department is "a massive battleship. It's not going to turn on a dime, but this is the signaling of a new chapter," said Crystal Echo Hawk, executive director of IllumiNative, a Native American advocacy group. "This is a deep resetting of the federal government's relationship with Native peoples, one that was built on stolen land and broken promises."

Biden's pick of Haaland had drawn concern among some Democrats over the threat of losing another seat and narrowing of the party's slim hold in the U.S. House. But she tweeted Thursday that the historic nature of her nomination has come at the right moment.

"A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior," Haaland, 60, a tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, said. "Growing up in my mother's Pueblo household made me fierce. I'll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land."

Haaland's supporters say her experience in Congress and personal understanding of Native American issues makes her qualified for an important federal position that involves the conservation and managing of the country's 500 million acres of federal lands and natural resources and includes a broad patchwork of agencies such as the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"It is truly a historic and unprecedented day for all Indigenous people," said Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, the tribe with the largest reservation in the United States.

Under the Trump administration, the Interior Department has drawn criticism over loyalty oaths among the 70,000-employee department and for President Donald Trump's selection in 2019 of former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt as secretary. Bernhardt replaced Ryan Zinke, who resigned after a series of scandals.

The administration's move in 2017 to reduce the land size of two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase — set off a battle with conservation groups and Native American tribes that was emblematic of the frustrations Indigenous people have had with the federal government, Echo Hawk said.

"The Department of the Interior has felt like a smash-and-grab job for the past few years," she added. "So imagine Day One, Deb in the Cabinet and in this new administration really working to protect these sacred sites."

Ken Salazar, who was interior secretary under the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, said Haaland is a "terrific choice" for the position and reached out to congratulate her.

He added that the "Senate should do its job" and move to confirm her quickly. Salazar was confirmed by unanimous consent in the Senate, although how easily Biden will see his nominations advance will depend, in part, on which party wins the Senate races in Georgia.

"This is a hard job," Salazar said, adding that Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii once told him that of all the Cabinet positions, "the Interior is the most important because you are the custodian of America's natural resources and custodian of America's heritage."

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, pushed for House Democratic leadership to endorse Haaland's nomination and set aside concerns about potentially losing another House seat after Biden earlier tapped Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana to be a White House senior adviser.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., speaks at the Democratic Women's Caucus press conference on Feb. 4, 2020. (Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP file)
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., speaks at the Democratic Women's Caucus press conference on Feb. 4, 2020. (Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP file)

He said he hopes the Republican senators will give Haaland a chance during the nomination process.

"The fact that she's not coming in with Zinke's or Bernhardt's agendas, that she brings a whole different and more inclusive perspective into how that agency functions, I think that's going to be one area of opposition," Grijalva said.

He added that the list of issues for Haaland to tackle is long and includes ensuring tribal and urban Native communities get access to federal funding, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic ravages Native American populations at a disproportionate rate; protecting wildlife refuges from oil and gas drilling; and investigating the growing number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Having Haaland at the helm would be "substantive," Grijalva said, after "the history of the Interior has been one that has been anti-Indian in every sense of the word." The agency has a record of dislocating Indigenous people in the United States.

Lynn Scarlett, a former acting interior secretary who was appointed by President George W. Bush, said Indian Country has more than 570 federally recognized tribes, and Haaland's personal experience with the tribal system means she can start prioritizing issues without training wheels.

"Those relationships are very complex and a lot of people are just not familiar with them," Scarlett said.

"The way this new administration is really emphasizing equity and inclusion and diversity can make a difference," she added.

Haaland previously made history in 2018 as one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, along with Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan.

Haaland, the daughter of military parents, first ran for higher office in 2014 as lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket. While she didn't win, she went on to become chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico before successfully running for Congress in her blue-leaning district, championing issues such as renewable energy and the environment.

Haaland has credited her mother and grandmother with her work ethic. Before her political career took off, she said, she supported her daughter by herself by starting a salsa company, Pueblo Salsa, out of her kitchen in 1995. She also got a degree in Native American law from the University of New Mexico in 2006, taking her daughter to all of her classes.

Other people might have given up under all the pressure, but Echo Hawk said she has long admired Haaland's ability to "stay humble and be unfazed."

In February, during a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., Echo Hawk said Haaland was mobbed by people, a reception she often gets because of her high-profile status among Native Americans.

"As Native people, we grow up constantly being erased and minimized and dehumanized. That to be successful, you have to leave your Native identity behind," Echo Hawk said. "But when young Native people come up to Deb in throngs, that's not the case. They feel hope."