In 2019, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) pressed a Trump administration Interior Department official about his history of ridiculing Native Americans over their religious beliefs regarding sacred lands. After downplaying his 2009 statement as one made “as a private attorney representing private clients,” William Perry Pendley, then-acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, said he was excited about the opportunity to work with Native American tribes ― especially to help them develop their oil, gas and mineral resources.
Haaland, a member of the Native American Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, reminded Pendley that tribal priorities don’t start and stop with extraction.
“There are tribes who want to protect their ancestral homelands because they feel like they’re under attack,” she said. “It’s very clear that the energy part is what’s important to you, and not the voices of the people.”
Less than two years later, Haaland is President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Interior Department, the parent agency of the Bureau of Land Management and several other federal agencies. If confirmed, she’ll make history as the nation’s first-ever Indigenous cabinet member, and will lead a massive department that, in addition to managing federal lands, is tasked with upholding the government’s trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations.
Elected tribal leaders, intertribal organizations and hundreds of green and progressive groups have celebrated her historic nomination as an important step toward confronting the U.S. government’s ugly history toward Indigenous peoples and rebuilding relations with them.
Yet when it came time to question Haaland at her confirmation hearing earlier this week before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, not a single Republican on the panel inquired about her vision for supporting tribal sovereignty and empowering Indigenous communities. Instead, the GOP lawmakers bombarded her with questions about her personal view on oil and gas ― views that largely align with Biden’s. They brought up tribes almost exclusively in the context of fossil fuel development.
The two-day hearing laid bare Republicans’ priorities, said Crystal Echo Hawk, the founder and executive director of Native-led advocacy group IllumiNative and an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma.
“They were only interested in furthering their agenda to ensure Rep. Haaland would continue to allow extractive industries to have free rein over the department,” she told HuffPost via email. “It is a reflection of what they fear about [her] — she is not beholden to the oil and gas industry as they are.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told Haaland at one point that it seemed as if had become “a proxy fight about the future of fossil fuels.”
While the Interior Department is best known for managing 500 million acres of federal land ― including the 63 national parks ― and setting policies that govern natural resource exploitation, its portfolio is much larger. It’s responsible for managing water resources across the West, reclaiming abandoned mine sites and protecting and recovering endangered species. And it’s in charge of the Bureau of Indian Education, which funds and operates more than 180 tribal schools, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Watching Republicans question Haaland, you wouldn’t know how essential the agency is to Indian Country on an array of matters.
“They didn’t ask questions about” the Bureau of Indian Education or Bureau of Indian Affairs, Echo Hawk noted. “It shows how little they care about Native peoples and tribal governments and how much allegiance they have to an industry [with] a long history of harming our community.”
The Republicans leading the effort to defeat Haaland’s nomination have received millions of dollars from the oil and gas industry, as HuffPost previously reported.
Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the committee’s ranking Republican, read aloud from a letter that the Northern Arapaho Business Council sent to Biden this week urging him to rescind the administration’s temporary pause on new oil and gas leases on federal lands. He then grilled Haaland about her previous statements against hydraulic fracturing and new fossil fuel infrastructure.
What Barrasso didn’t mention is that despite the Wyoming-based tribe’s heavy reliance on oil and gas revenues and the letter to Biden, the council’s chairman, Jordan Dresser, has voiced support for Haaland’s nomination.
“I’m just really excited for her,” Dresser told KUNM radio in Albuquerque. “It feels like another glimmer of hope for us.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), noting that oil and gas production is a major source of income for the Osage Nation and his state, asked Haaland about her stance on energy development on tribal lands. Haaland pointed out that the Biden administration’s pause on new oil and gas leasing does not impact tribal lands, promised to study the issue closely and acknowledged that her job as Interior secretary would entail a different mindset than that as a member of Congress.
“I understand that role. It’s to serve all Americans, not just one my one district in New Mexico,” she said.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) noted that the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, are major oil producers and ship 300,000 barrels per day through the Dakota Access Pipeline. Asked if shutting down the project would have a devastating effect on the tribes’ economy, Haaland agreed such a move would have impacts, but again stressed that Biden’s executive order on federal leases does not include tribal lands.
After canceling a key permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, the Biden administration faces increasing calls to shut down Dakota Access and other controversial pipelines. In 2016, before being elected to Congress, Haaland joined representatives of some 200 tribes at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to protest Dakota Access.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who infuriated tribes and tribal groups in his home state this month after he painted Haaland as a “radical” threat to the fossil fuel economy and the Montana “way of life,” only once mentioned tribal communities during his three rounds of rapid-fire questions. That came as part of a question about animal trapping, in which he cited a 2019 quote in which Haaland voiced opposition to trapping on federal lands.
“About 6,000 Montanans are trappers, including several in tribal communities,” Daines said. “If confirmed, will you restrict or ban trapping on public lands?”
Haaland said she intends to follow the science and consult experts and stakeholders when making decisions, and that when she made that statement many of her constituents back home had expressed serious concerns about the issue.
Daines’ approach toward Haaland stood in stark contrast to his treatment of former Trump administration Interior chiefs Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt. At Zinke’s confirmation hearing in 2017, for example, Daines told the nominee that the “bottom line is Indian Country should be very excited to have you in their corner” before posing this question: “Tell us what you have done to help bring economic prosperity to Indian Country?”
Daines asked no such question of Haaland, who is widely considered among the main advocates in Congress for Indian Country.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) acknowledged the significance of Haaland’s nomination but questioned her about her past opposition to the Willow project, a stalled oil development in her state’s National Petroleum Reserve. Murkowski said the project is important to Alaska Natives and the state’s economy, and asked, “If we can’t produce oil resources within the National Petroleum Reserve, it causes one to question: Where?”
Haaland assured Murkowski she would follow the law and consult Alaska Natives and other stakeholders about the project.
Murkowski also questioned whether Haaland fully understands the role that Alaska Native Corporations play in representing tribal interests in the state. “Their unique structure,” Murkowski said, “allows really true self-determination and economic empowerment.”
Haaland admitted she does not fully grasp the Alaska Native governance structure, but promised to learn and be an advocate for the Indigenous peoples of the 49th state.
Unlike most of their GOP colleagues, several Democrats on the committee used the hearing to raise matters other than energy development that affect Indian Country.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) urged Haaland to prioritize the repatriation of stolen tribal cultural items — an issue the nominee called “heartbreaking.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told her that the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in his home state are “sure looking for your new lens” to help deal with its ongoing water crisis.
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) asked Haaland if his state could count on her to oppose uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, noting that such a project poses a potential threat to the Havasupai tribe’s lone source of water. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked for her ideas for improving the lives and health of Native Americans.
Haaland mentioned cleaning up legacy pollution, addressing education shortfalls and combating the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“It’s difficult to not feel obligated to protect this land, and I feel that every indigenous person in this land understands that,” Haaland said in response to a question from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) about why she wants to serve as the 54th interior secretary. “We want to protect this country, and that means protecting it in every single way.”
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.