Haaland nomination generates excitement in Native American communities
News of Rep. Deb Haaland’s (D-N.M.) historic selection as Interior secretary has generated an emotional response from Native Americans eager to see representation in government.
President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday selected Haaland to head the department.
If confirmed, Haaland will be the first Native American Cabinet secretary and the first Native American to helm the Department of the Interior, which has significant responsibilities to the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes.
“I thought about my daughter and how this is a new normal for my daughter,” Nikki Pitre, executive director of the Center for Native American Youth and a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, told The Hill. “Seeing what it’s like to have an indigenous woman in the highest levels of government — it’s hard to put into words now that I’m seeing it and get to experience it. It just feels incredibly overwhelming in the absolute best way.”
Haaland, a progressive, generated significant momentum for the position, backed by groups and lawmakers on the left as well as many tribes.
“She’s going to make our ancestors so proud. I’m on the floor of my apartment crying with joy,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy with Data for Progress and vocal Haaland supporter, wrote on Twitter. “After four years of fossil fuel executives and lobbyists opening up Native lands and sacred sites to industry tycoons, the next Secretary of Interior will be a Laguna Pueblo woman who went to Standing Rock in 2016 and cooked for the people.”
The significance hasn’t been lost on Haaland.
“I think it’s wonderful that our country is progressing in that manner, that a Cabinet-level position filled by a Native American is a conversation that we’re having right now,” Haaland said in an interview with The Washington Post last week.
“We have to include Native Americans in the conversation because this was all Indian country at one time,” she said. “They deserve to be consulted when decisions about our public lands are made. We’ve seen that play out in real time during this administration and what happens when you don’t consult tribes.”
Haaland’s selection helps Biden fulfill his pledge to create a Cabinet that “looks like America.”
“Representation and visibility matters,” Pitre said. “Congresswoman Haaland continually told our native youth, ‘Call me auntie, you have an auntie in the House of Representatives.’ That means you have someone that cares about you and will have your back and will take care of you. She embodies that with young people who have so much pride to call her auntie.”
Biden was under increasing pressure to select Haaland over others candidates for the position, including Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), whose father ran the department in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
“It would not be right for two Udalls to lead the Department of the Interior, the agency tasked with managing the nation’s public lands, natural resources and trust responsibilities to tribes, before a single Native American,” NDN Collective, an indigenous rights group, wrote in a letter last week asking Udall to back Haaland for the role.
Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, congratulated Haaland on Thursday for securing the nod, calling it “a watershed moment for Native communities, and for our nation.”
“I am confident that she will be both a historic Interior Secretary and an excellent one. She will undo the damage of the Trump administration, restore the department’s workforce and expertise, uphold our obligations to Native communities, and take the bold action needed to tackle the accelerating climate and nature crises,” he said.
Haaland’s nomination also comes after the Interior has been criticized for its role in serving Native Americans — concerns that far predate the Trump administration.
The department oversees the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which helps provide law enforcement on reservations.
The department has been under pressure to do more to address an epidemic of missing and killed Native American women. Critics say the government has not done enough to try to solve their cold cases.
“Representation means progress, and it is important to see people in these roles that look like us, share our lived experience, and who honor Indigenous self-determination. Even more importantly, it is essential that progress also translates into power,” Korina Barry, managing director of NDN Collective’s NDN Action, said in a statement.
“Our movement has been hurt by the Trump administration and its policies, and we want to ensure our agenda is heard by the new administration. We expect to see Haaland lead on issues that are important to us, such as returning land back to our people, combating the climate crisis, and tackling the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Barry said.
Dallas Goldtooth, a campaigner with the Indigenous Environmental Network and a member of the Dakota tribe, said the next major battle will be pushing for Haaland’s confirmation as she could face a Republican majority in the Senate.
“The entire right wing section and industry is going to be coming after her so the most important thing we can do is support her in that process,” he said.
Goldtooth said Haaland’s selection was welcome news and an important win. But he also wants to make ensure the Biden campaign knows one progressive pick is not enough.
“It’s a ‘yes, and’ for me. Now it’s like, ‘What else are you going to do?’ That’s the energy I have right now. I don’t want us to become complacent; I don’t want Biden to say, ‘We gave them one progressive they should be happy with that,’ ” Goldtooth said.
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