The New Mexico lawmaker is a member of the Laguna Pueblo people

By Virginia Chamlee
December 18, 2020 07:10 PM
Rep. Deb Haaland
| Credit: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

In another history-making selection to his cabinet, president-elect Joe Biden on Thursday announced New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as his nominee to lead the Department of the Interior.

If confirmed by the Senate, Haaland would be the first Native American Cabinet head in a role that would have her oversee American Indian affairs, including how America's treaties with Indigenous people are fulfilled and how public lands are managed.

"A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior," Haaland, 60, wrote in a tweet following Biden's Thursday announcement. "Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land. I am honored and ready to serve."

In its own statement, the Biden-Harris transition called Haaland, who is a member of the Laguna Pueblo people, "a barrier-breaking public servant who has spent her career fighting for families, including in Tribal Nations, rural communities, and communities of color."

Haaland currently serves as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. She made history in 2018, as one of the first Indigenous women to be elected to Congress.

Tribal activists and environmental groups, many of which pushed the administration to select Haaland for the position, lauded the decision.

In a Facebook post, the Yurok Tribe wrote that "Indigenous representation at the highest levels of government is long overdue," noting that Haaland would oversee issues of great importance, such as natural resource management and restoration.

“For too long, our water and fishing rights have been treated as an afterthought and a nuisance by the federal government," the Yurok vice chairman, Frank Myers, said in the post. "Our sacred duty as Yurok people, which exists outside any Federal construct or laws, is to bring balance to the river and to our world."

Environmental justice group EarthRights International echoed that approval.

“Naming an Indigenous Person to oversee the United States’ oil and mining reserves sends a powerful message to Indigenous Peoples around the world whose lands have been damaged and destroyed by extractive industries ... Rep. Haaland will push oil and mining companies to treat Indigenous People with respect and transparency," EarthRights' executive director, Ka Hsaw Wa, said in a statement. "Her leadership is even more critical at a time when Indigenous People globally are facing ethnocide from COVID-19 and climate change."

In 2016, Haaland supported the Standing Rock Sioux tribes' opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline, staying in the camps for four days to offer support as well as home-cooked food.

Though construction on the pipeline was ultimately completed after President Donald Trump signed an executive order, Haaland told a reporter then that the demonstration had still been meaningful.

“I felt like we really had hit on an environmental movement that was deep and meaningful,” Haaland told High Plains Reader. “It just seemed so amazing that so many tribes came together, because tribes came from everywhere to stand with the water protectors. It was significant that so many of us came together to protect water, our natural resources."

Haaland joins several other historic picks for the incoming Biden administration, including Xavier Becerra, who would be the first Latino health and human services secretary, and Janet Yellen, who would be the first woman to be treasury secretary.

Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden's choice for secretary of homeland security, would be the first Latino to lead that department; Army Gen. Lloyd Austin would be the first Black person to run the Pentagon.