Finally, a Native person might lead the U.S. agency that works with tribal governments
In a historic move, President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) for the position of secretary of the interior. If she's confirmed by the Senate after the new Congress takes office in January, Haaland will be the first Native person to head the agency.
The Department of the Interior employs 70,000 people and includes a number of federal agencies. Its primary responsibility is the oversight of federal lands, resources, national parks, landmarks, and offshore territories. Significantly, the Interior Department is responsible for facilitating the government-to-government relationship between the federal government and tribal nations – yet a Native person has never, in the history of the department's existence, stood at its helm. The department regulates the extraction of resources through mining, drilling, and logging, which will surely take up significant political space in the Biden administration.
Haaland has already committed to helping to steer the U.S. in a new direction as it relates to environmental justice and energy production. Speaking earlier this month with The Washington Post, Haaland said, "I come from New Mexico. It’s a big gas and oil state. And I care about every single job. ... We don’t want to go back to normal, right? We don’t want to go back to where we were because that economy wasn’t working for a lot of people."
Tribal nations, Indigenous organizations, and environmental groups all lauded Biden for Haaland's nomination. "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," Gussie Lord, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Tribal Partnerships Program, said in press release. "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."
Earlier in the transition period, it seemed less likely that Biden would tap another member of the House for his Cabinet, given Democrats' thin majority in the lower chamber. But significant lobbying and mobilization by grassroots organizations and advocates for Native representation in government surely helped motivate this nomination. If she is confirmed, Haaland will almost surely undo four years of Trump administration rollbacks to public land and natural resource protections, while playing a leading role in shaping the Biden administration's climate policy.
"I cannot think of a single greater act to begin that promise than by giving a Native American woman authority over the nation's stolen land and allowing her to begin the process of restoring relationships with our nation's first peoples," said Sunrise Movement executive director and co-founder Varshini Prakash in a press release. Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also praised the pick, as did Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).