WASHINGTON – As thousands of Native Americans watched online, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., was confirmed as secretary of the Interior Department by a 51-40 vote in the Senate, making her the first American Indian to lead an agency that manages a vast portfolio of federal land and the oil and mineral wealth that lies beneath it. 

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation in New Mexico and whose family ties in the country can be traced back 35 generations, will take control of a department that also oversees Indian Country, 574 federally recognized Native American and Alaska Native communities.

Four Republicans crossed party lines to vote for Haaland. The close vote reflected broad support from Democrats and overwhelming opposition from Republicans.

Many Republicans decried Haaland’s support for the Green New Deal, which calls for dramatically lowering fossil-fuel emissions, and her opposition to an expansion of oil and gas drilling on public land, saying the positions disqualified her to lead an agency that has traditionally promoted those ventures.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., recalled how Republicans launched a “ferocious” attack against Haaland, calling her views on managing public land extreme and “radical” during her committee confirmation hearing. Meanwhile, Smith said, some of those same senators posed little opposition to Tom Vilsack’s nomination to run the Agriculture Department, although many of his views are similar to Haaland’s.

“I just find it difficult to take these Republican attacks at face value,” Smith said. “Once again a woman, and a woman of color, is being held to a different standard and we need to call it.”

Two key GOP senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, broke with their caucus days before the vote to announce their support for Haaland.

Murkowski said she would vote to make history despite her strong reservations about the effect a secretary with Haaland’s views could have on her oil-rich state.

Native Alaskans make up about 20% of her state’s population, according to the 2014 Census update, and hundreds of women submitted an open letter in the Anchorage Daily News in support of Haaland. Alaska’s second senator, Republican Dan Sullivan, joined Murkowski in voting for Haaland.

Collins praised Haaland’s deep knowledge of Indian affairs and said the nominee gained her trust, and her vote, during a meeting.

The significance of the achievement moved Crystal EchoHawk to tears. “I get emotional right now because our children will know that anything’s possible,” said EchoHawk, executive director of IllumiNative, a group that uses pop culture and media to dispel Native American stereotypes. “We turn on the TV, we look at the news and we don’t see anyone who looks like us.”

Haaland is scheduled to be sworn in Wednesday. In addition to being the first Native American to run Interior, she will be only the third woman to run the agency and the first American Indian to hold a Cabinet-level position.

When she accepted her nomination for the job in December, Haaland recalled that Alexander H.H. Stuart, the department’s third secretary, said the only alternative for the United States after defeating Indians in wars was to “civilize or exterminate them.”

“If it weren’t for COVID, there would probably be thousands of Native Americans descending on D.C.,” EchoHawk said. “But thousands of people will gather virtually. We’re organizing a virtual watch party and a virtual celebration.”

During her confirmation hearings, Haaland said repeatedly that her priority as a member of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet will be to help execute his climate plan. Biden’s goal is to allow some oil and gas drilling and mining, while also working to lower the carbon and methane gas emissions from those operations.

Haaland said she will also focus on restoring land that has been scarred by excavation of resources such as coal and uranium. Water issues such as pollution and warming that have decreased fish stocks that Indigenous people rely on for food and ceremonies is another focus.

A personal priority, Haaland said, is the issue of missing and murdered women in Indian Country, which on some reservations is 10 times higher than the national average, according to studies. Native American women are also more likely to be trafficked for sex and labor.

In New Mexico, the joy over Haaland’s confirmation is high. “It’s historical to see such a high Cabinet seat with an Indigenous woman, no less a Pueblo woman from the same ancestral landscape as those who work with Pueblo Action Alliance,” said Julia Bernal, director of the nonprofit alliance and a member of the Sandia Pueblo in New Mexico. “We have our own personal connections to congresswoman Deb Haaland. Pueblo people are close, tightknit, so it’s powerful to see our kin in this position.”

That kindred spirit was mutual across the country in Minnesota, where the realization that a Native woman was now in charge of the federal arm that reaches out to American Indians was astonishing.

“Now that she is Secretary Haaland, I think we can all expect there will be a voice that is not just “familiar with” or “friendly to” tribes and tribal issues but a voice that is us,” Holly Cook Macarro, chairwoman of American Indian Graduate Center, wrote in an email Monday.

“That said, I realize, and Secretary Haaland has already demonstrated, that she also is a leading voice on climate change, the protection of public lands, and deeply familiar with how to protect and preserve America’s treasured places for the next generations,” she said. “Her responsibilities are broader than those regarding Indian country, we understand that – but it doesn’t change that she brings a tribal voice and experience that has never been heard from the secretary’s desk before.”

Macarro used the Chippewa language of her Red Lake Nation of Northern Minnesota – “Gichi-ogimaakwe” – to describe Haaland. “The highest-leader woman,” she said.


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