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Deb Haaland
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on June 4, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Deb Haaland finally lands confirmation hearing to be Secretary of the Interior
Wednesday, February 17, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) is inching closer to making history as the first Native person to serve in a modern-day presidential cabinet.

Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, will go before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for her confirmation hearing next week. The February 23 proceeding is a long-awaited development for Indian Country, where tribal leaders and tribal citizens alike see her nomination to be Secretary of the Interior in President Joe Biden’s administration as extremely significant.

“The United States must uphold its responsibility to tribal nations, honor its treaties, and provide a voice for Indian Country in the federal government,” a national letter of support that will be submitted to the committee reads. “It is with this responsibility in mind and with tremendous enthusiasm that we urge you to swiftly consider and confirm President Joseph R. Biden’s nomination of Rep. Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior.”

Should she be confirmed as Secretary, Haaland will be the first Native person in charge of the Department of the Interior, the federal agency with the largest number of programs serving tribes and their citizens. Her workload would include the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, along with countless other areas that affect American Indians and Alaska Natives.

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“The nomination of Deb Haaland is one of the brightest spots of the Biden administration thus far,” Jodi Archambault, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who previously served in high-ranking positions during the Barack Obama era, said during a virtual event hosted by Advance Native Political Leadership last week.

Of the 46th president of the United States, Archambault said: “He’s bringing a Native voice to the highest decision-making processes of the federal government.”

But while Haaland has drawn widespread support from tribal nations, Democrats and even fellow Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, her reception has been somewhat chilly in the U.S. Senate. Though her Cabinet-level nomination was announced back in December, her confirmation hearing has been among the last to be scheduled.

“It really should not be necessary for us to explain why Rep. Haaland is the most-fitting nominee for Secretary of the Interior in our nation’s history, but in this divisive political atmosphere we feel that we must attempt to briefly summarize why,” the leaders of several inter-tribal organizations wrote in a letter to Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana), who serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“Rep. Haaland has not been nominated to President Biden’s cabinet on the basis of wealth, social status, or to repay a favor, quite the contrary, Deb Haaland’s life and career has exemplified selflessness and acting in service to others,” the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, the Global Indigenous Council and the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association wrote on February 10.


Yet Daines, who also serves on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, is among those who have already voiced opposition to Haaland. After meeting with her earlier this month, he characterized her views as “radical” for people living in Montana and in the West — without mentioning that his state and the region are home to more tribes than any other in the U.S.

“After our conversation, I’m deeply concerned with the Congresswoman’s support on several radical issues that will hurt Montana, our way of life, our jobs and rural America, including her support for the Green New Deal and President Biden’s oil and gas moratorium, as well as her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline,” Daines said on February 5, citing policies that have proven to be popular throughout the nation.

“I’m not convinced the Congresswoman can divorce her radical views and represent what’s best for Montana and all stakeholders in the West. Unless my concerns are addressed, I will block her confirmation,” Daines threatened.

Daines isn’t the only member of the GOP intent on slowing Haaland’s rise to power. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has repeatedly criticized the Biden administration’s actions on energy development, seemingly in an attempt to force her into contradicting the president, or into taking a stance different from the president’s.

Barrasso, a former chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs who spoke with the Interior nominee by phone in early January, insisted in a statement last week that Haaland “must demonstrate that she will follow the law, protect the multiple uses of our public lands and reject policies that will force energy workers into the unemployment line.” He didn’t mention that as president, Biden has the authority to determine how the executive branch implements federal statutes, a power enshrined in the U.S Constitution.

With the Senate evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and with committees reflecting the same delicate divide, any dissent threatens Haaland’s nomination. But experts in Indian law and policy believe the chamber will eventually vote to confirm her as Secretary of the Interior despite “complications” related to Biden’s directives affecting resource extraction, climate change and related issues

“The historic nature of Deb Haaland’s nomination I think will make it very difficult for several Republicans to object, especially those have have strong ties to Indian Country, ” attorney Sarah A. Walters, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said during an event hosted by the National Congress of American Indians last month.

Both Daines and Barrasso come from states with significant Indian populations. In fact, almost every member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Democrats and Republicans alike, falls in the same boat, whether it be Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) or Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). There’s also lots of overlap with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

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Members of the Senate often raise concerns about presidential nominees in hopes of securing concessions from the executive branch — even those from the same political party. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, enjoys strong ties to the development industry and has already called on Biden to reconsider his decision to cancel the presidential permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, a decision that was completely outside of Interior’s purview.

“He probably has some qualms to some of the more progressive views on extraction and minerals and fossil fuels, considering that he’s from West Virginia,” Walters said of Manchin, who will lead Haaland’s confirmation hearing next Tuesday.

Though members of U.S. House of Representatives don’t vote on presidential nominees, Haaland is unique in that she has been endorsed by members of the GOP in the chamber. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the highest-ranking Republican on the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, praised her in a public appearance on Wednesday.

“I’ve worked with Deb Haaland before,” Young, who as Dean of the House is the longest continuously serving member there, told the Native American Contractors Association on the first day of its virtual conference.

“We’re going to continue to work together to try to make sure that my Alaska Natives — primarily, I have to be very frank with you — and American Indians in the lower 48 can continue to go forth and be successful,” said Young, whose late wife and children are Alaska Native. He will be introducing Haaland at her confirmation hearing next week, along with Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico).

Indianz.Com Video: Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) | Native American Contractors Association

Haaland also addressed NACA’s annual Federal Contracting Policy and Advocacy Conference via video. She focused mainly on new laws that will enhance economic development in Indian Country but spoke briefly of ongoing efforts in the new presidential administration to advance opportunities for those often left behind.

“The Biden-Harris administration got off the right foot to help this work by signing an executive order that will ensure the federal government takes an ‘all-of-government’ approach to equity and does not perpetuate the racial injustice that has caused disparities that have put our communities at greater health and economic risks during this pandemic,” Haaland said in reference to COVID-19, which has impacted American Indians and Alaska Natives at disproportionate levels.

On his first day in office on January 20, President Biden issued an executive order addressing racial equity and underserved communities. Another day one action promised more effective coordination with tribal authorities in combating the coronavirus.

Historically, Interior nominees don’t face many questions about Indian Country during their confirmation hearings. Energy development, climate change, water policy and management of public lands, especially national parks and refuges, usually dominate discussion.

Like Haaland, every Secretary pick in recent years has hailed from a Western state, regardless of party affiliation. In the last 20 years, the department has been led by Ken Salazar (Democrat, January 2009-December 2013), David Bernhardt (Republican, April 2019-January 2021) and Gale Norton (Republican, January 2001-March 2006) from Colorado, Dirk Kempthorne (Republican, May 2006-January 2009) from Idaho, Ryan Zinke (Republican, March 2017-January 2019) from Montana and Sally Jewell (Democrat, April 2013-January 2017) from Washington.

As the first woman to lead Interior, Norton was among the most controversial of recent secretaries, due to her past stances and ties to the Ronald Reagan administration, whose policies were often disastrous for tribes and their citizens. Still, she was confirmed with bipartisan support.

Salazar, as a former U.S. Senator, secured confirmation from his former colleagues on the first day of the Barack Obama administration back in January 2009. Despite her complications, Norton won a vote 11 days into the George W. Bush era.

Yet Salazar and Norton stand out as anomalies. Almost every other Interior nominee in the recent era has had to wait weeks or even months to gain confirmation.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) celebrate as the first Native women to serve in Congress at an event in their honor on January 2, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Haaland would be the first Secretary from New Mexico since Manuel Lujan Jr., who served for the entirety of the George H. W. Bush’s first and only term in office in the early 1990s.

“Rep. Haaland’s record of legislative successes showcases that she will continue to bring pragmatism and bipartisanship to the performance of her responsibilities as Interior Secretary,” the forthcoming national letter of support reads. “As a Native woman, Rep. Haaland descends from people who have hunted, farmed, managed, and cared for our nation’s lands since time immemorial. She understands deeply that these landscapes are multipurpose and integral to sustaining many communities, economies, and cultures.”

Haaland’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of the Interior will take place at 9:30am Eastern on February 23. It will be live-streamed on


Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Notice
Hearing to Consider Nomination of the Honorable Debra Haaland to be the Secretary of the Interior (February 23, 2021)

Deb Haaland: Secretary of the Interior Nominee
‘I am honored and ready to serve’: Deb Haaland and the Joe Biden administration

President-elect Joe Biden introduces Interior nominee Deb Haaland

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