Energy & Environment

Native groups hope Haaland’s historic confirmation comes with tribal wins

Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland
Washington Examiner/Pool

Indigenous groups are excited about the historic nature of Deb Haaland’s confirmation as Interior secretary. They are also hopeful she will advocate for and enact policies that help Native communities.

Advocates are hoping that Haaland, a former lawmaker from New Mexico who is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, will help prioritize tribal involvement in decisions around environmental issues and land use, as well as help bring critical broadband internet access to tribes.

“I think there’s a clear understanding, I think there’s a level of credibility and relationship that she has in Indian Country,” said Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive and attorney at the Association on American Indian Affairs.

Senators confirmed Haaland in a 51-40 vote Monday, with four Republicans joining Democrats in supporting the nomination. She is set to be the first Native American to oversee a department with significant responsibilities to the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the four Republicans, expressed some doubt about and disagreement with Haaland, but acknowledged the significance of her nomination to Native people.

“It was significant that you have a Native American woman who will be in a position to really oversee, if you will, those lands that are part of their homeland,” she told pool reporters Monday. “There is clearly that sense of pride, but as important as that is, it is more important that a woman who has achieved this historic position then lives up to it.”

O’Loughlin said she hopes the Biden administration’s Interior Department will take a different approach to tribal consultations than its predecessor, which she said did not do an adequate job of listening to tribal leaders.

“The last four years we have suffered from an Interior Department that had no idea how to consult with tribes,” she said, adding that she hopes Haaland will “collaborate and consult in a way that’s not just a procedural process, but will listen effectively and substantively to tribes about whatever issues are on the table.”

Some advocates also called for a faster process for tribes to swap land with the federal government.

“There are a lot of tribes that are seeking to restore lost lands and get more lands placed into trust that are their homelands,” said Wendy Helgemo, a senior legislative attorney at Big Fire Law and Policy Group, which focuses on tribal law.

Helgemo added that many hope the federal government will “approve those activities more quickly.”

Aaron Payment, first vice president for the National Congress of American Indians, also called for a “streamlined and fair process” for putting lands into trust for tribes and also said that tribes should have jurisdiction over land use permits.

“States do their own permitting and so it’s really paternalistic for tribes to have to ask the great white father, the federal government, to have to give approval,” said Payment, who said he is a personal friend of Haaland’s.

Kandi White, a Native energy and climate campaign coordinator with the Indigenous Environmental Network, said she hopes to see federal government support for developing renewable energy on tribal lands.

“We’ve always been bombarded by oil and gas … that’s the only support we’ve ever had and now there’s actually a light at the end of the tunnel for being able to develop renewable energy resources in a way that we see fit as tribal nations,” White said.

She said that even though she was excited about Haaland’s confirmation, environmental advocates may still have to push the Biden administration on issues like fracking, which White said she hopes to eventually see banned. 

“We can step up our game both on Biden and on Deb Haaland because they have to represent their constituents and that includes us,” she said.

During her confirmation hearing, Haaland said her priorities would include helping to bring broadband to tribes and dealing with missing and murdered Indigenous women, which are areas that advocates agreed need work from the federal government.

“There’s a lot of rurality to this nation still and we don’t have connections and how that’s impacted health care, kids, governance, name it,” said Traci Morris, the executive director of Arizona State University’s American Indian Policy Institute. “She’ll be able to work with colleagues at [the Department of Agriculture] USDA who implement all the broadband grants … and she knows the folks at the [Federal Communications Commission] FCC working on this, so … I’m hopeful for partnerships that create lasting impact.”

On the missing and slain issue, O’Loughlin said she hopes Haaland will be able to “bring the power of the federal government.”

“A lot of what’s happening with missing and murdered Indigenous peoples is very localized and so a lot of people locally know what’s going on with those issues,” she said. “I hope what she will bring is a national effort that will help these local communities and areas where this is happening, help provide support at a larger level … to look at this as a national issue.”

Morris also said she thinks Haaland’s visibility will inspire young Native people to become more politically involved.

“It’s an exciting, kind of overwhelming thought to have one of our own in there. I do think you’re going to see a lot of inspired youth going into politics after this,” she said.

Tags Deb Haaland deb haaland interior secretary confirmation native american tribe support wins hope policy energy environment Lisa Murkowski

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