Indianz.Com > News > Deb Haaland tapped for Cabinet by President-elect Joe Biden
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) takes part in an organizational meeting of the House Committee on Natural Resources on January 29, 2019. Photo: House Committee on Natural Resources: Democrats
Deb Haaland tapped for Cabinet by President-elect Joe Biden
Thursday, December 17, 2020

On Thursday evening, Democratic President-elect Joe Biden announced he will introduce Deb Haaland as his Secretary of the Interior nominee in Wilmington, Delaware, at about 2:30pm Eastern this Saturday.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a historic first, Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native women to serve in the U.S. Congress, has been tapped to serve as Secretary of the Interior for the incoming Joe Biden administration.

Haaland is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, an Indian nation based in New Mexico. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she would be the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior, the federal agency with the most trust and treaty responsibilities in Indian Country.

Haaland’s selection as Secretary of the Interior would put her in charge of the programs that play significant roles in the lives of tribes and their citizens. The department’s portfolio includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE).

“It is truly a historic and unprecedented day for all Indigenous people as Congresswoman Deb Haaland has been selected to head one of the largest federal agencies, which oversees the BIA and BIE, at the highest level of the federal government,” President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation said on Thursday of the lawmaker from New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District.

Haaland is the first Native person named to Biden’s burgeoning Cabinet. She is among a diverse set of nominees who are set to lead the executive branch of the U.S. government once the Democratic president-elect and his vice president, Kamala Harris, take office on January 20, 2021.

“I congratulate her and I also thank the Biden-Harris team for making a statement and keeping their word to place Native Americans in high-level cabinet positions,” Nez said of Haaland and the significance of her selection.

With experiences that includes work in tribal economic development, getting out the vote in Indian Country and serving as a leader in the 116th Congress on a wide range of policy issues, Haaland boasts an unprecedented background for a Cabinet nominee of any presidential administration. She’s the daughter of two U.S. military veterans and a single mother who rose to prominence in Democratic politics by focusing on her unique history.

“I decided to run because I really did feel that we needed a Native woman in Congress,” Haaland said on Monday during an event hosted by Four Directions, a Native vote advocacy group.

“That’s really the bottom line,” said Haaland, who secured victory in 2018 in her first bid for the U.S. legislative branch.

Upon joining the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2019, Haaland became vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, the panel with jurisdiction over Indian Country and public lands — the very same issues she would be dealing with at Interior. She also chaired the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands and served on the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States during her first session.

In her first few days on the job, Haaland tackled some major issues, most notably the shutdown of the federal government, which was the longest ever in U.S. history. The lapse in federal funding hit tribal and urban Indian communities especially hard, exposing long-standing inequities in programs at Interior and at other agencies.

Haaland’s efforts to elevate Indian Country’s needs have continued well beyond that early crisis. As the first Native woman to co-chair the Congressional Native American Caucus, a bipartisan group of members of the House, the lawmaker has helped improve and expand on key initiatives such as protecting Native languages, promoting tribal self-governance and boosting economic development opportunities.

“Things like broadband internet service, electricity, running water — these are things that so many places in Indian Country don’t have and I felt like it was important to bring these issues to light,” Haaland said on Monday in explaining why she entered public office.

And with COVID-19 still ravaging American Indians and Alaska Natives at disproportionate rates, Haaland has repeatedly criticized the Trump administration for its handling of the pandemic. One of the biggest controversies has centered on Interior’s role in steering shares of $8 billion in relief funding to Alaska Native corporations, money that was delayed by bungling in the nation’s capital.

“In the end, the administration insisted on taking nearly three months, put tribes through unnecessary litigation, ultimately allocated large amounts of funding to for-profit corporations, insisted on overly burdensome application materials that no other state or local governments had to submit, and failed to protect tribal data in the process,” Haaland said in late August.

But as America prepares for a Democratic-led administration following the debacles of the Donald Trump era, tribes and their citizens are looking forward to a new dawn. Many see Haaland’s selection as way to restore honor to the government-to-government relationship.

“As a former employee, the Department of the Interior needs Deb Haaland’s leadership at this time more than ever,” said Nedra Darling, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation who retired in 2019 after working at the agency for more than 20 years, through Republican and Democratic presidents.

“I want to thank her for stepping in,” Darling told Indianz.Com on Thursday. “She’s so strategic. She’s thoughtful and respectful to people. I think she’s going to be a great leader there.”

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), left, and Nedra Darling pose after a celebration held in honor of Haaland and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) in Washington, D.C. on January 3, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Melanie Benjamin, the Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, agreed with the glowing assessment. Haaland’s presence in the Biden administration represents a major shift in how Interior will carry out its trust and treaty responsibilities, she said.

“For the first time in our nation’s history, Native Americans can look upon their federal government and see a cabinet leader who has walked in our shoes, and who understands how her decisions will impact our daily lives,” Benjamin, whose tribal nation is based in Minnesota, said in a statement. “I have no doubt Deb Haaland will do an outstanding job for Indian Country and for all of America.”

Over in New Mexico, a Pueblo woman leader was celebrating the historic achievement as well. Lynn Trujillo, the Secretary of Indian Affairs, said Haaland will be a “true champion for Indian Country as Interior Secretary.”

“Young Native women and girls have a new role model today as we see a strong, indigenous woman take on this responsibility,” said Trujillo, a citizen of the Pueblo of Sandia who also hails from the Pueblo of Acoma and the Pueblo of Taos.

Deb Haaland
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) speaks about legislation to protect the Grand Canyon from uranium mining at the U.S. Capitol on June 4, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Biden team has not yet publicly spoken about Haaland’s pending selection. The president-elect has not planned any public events for Friday, according to the Biden-Harris transition, eliminating any opportunity for an appearance to discuss his Cabinet, at least for the time being.

Historically, the confirmation hearing for the Secretary of the Interior has taken place in the middle of January following the election of a new president. Ryan Zinke, who was Donald Trump’s first pick; Ken Salazar from the Barack Obama era; and Gale Norton, who was the first woman in the post, all went before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee around the third week of the month after they were nominated.

The members of the committee typically focus on public lands, energy development, water management, endangered species and conservation issues when questioning the Interior nominee. Indian Country often comes up but historically, tribal matters have not been make or break for any presidential pick.

With COVID-19 continuing to affect business on Capitol Hill, and in Washington, D.C., in general, it’s not clear when a hearing for the Interior nominee might take place.

A bigger unknown is whether Republicans or Democrats will control the Senate in the next session of Congress. The power question is significant, as it determines how Biden’s nominees will be treated during the conformation process.

The outcome won’t be known until voters in Georgia go to the polls on January 5 to decide two Senate races. The Four Directions event in which Haaland participated on Monday focused on getting out the Native vote in the state.

“Yes, we have a mistrust of the government. But this is our land,” Haaland said when asked about ways to motivate Native voters. “This is our land. This was all Indian Country at one time and we can’t forsake it because we don’t feel like we should get involved in politics.”

“We have Joe Biden as our next president because Indian Country came out and voted for him,” Haaland said.

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