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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

The appointment of Rep. Deb Haaland — or any other tribal citizen — to a presidential cabinet would make history. Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, would be the first Native American to operate a cabinet level agency. Let’s look at the numbers.

Vice President Charles Curtis, Kaw, is the only tribal citizen to ever serve in a presidential cabinet, but he did not run an agency, nor did he do much. According to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center on the presidential scholarship: “As vice president, Curtis was rarely consulted and had a distant relationship with Hoover. Their union was one of political convenience, and lingering hard feelings from their contentious battle for the 1928 nomination did little to foster a functional relationship. Curtis attended a few cabinet meetings but as a whole did not substantially affect policy during his tenure.”

Haaland would be the first Native American to serve in the cabinet as an agency head, running the Interior department.

There have been roughly 750 cabinet appointments from 45 presidents (cabinets have changed over time, the first one was only four officers. The vice president was added in 1921.)

The math: One cabinet appointment out of 750 equals 0.133333333333 percent.

That’s bad. But extrapolate that beyond the cabinet, across government and the daunting nature of this history is clear. There are 4,000 jobs that will be appointed by the next president. To reach parity with the population, it would require at least 80 such appointments.

There are zero Native Americans in the United States Senate. In the history of the country there have only been four, all men. Nearly 2,000 men and women have served in the U.S. Senate since 1789 and that hits 0.2 percent.

The people’s House where Haaland now serves has better numbers. There will be four members in the next Congress, or 0.91954022988506 percent. Since the Congress first began there have been 10,363 members since 1789 or 0.16404516066776 percent.



More numbers. There are currently 870 authorized Article III judges; nine on the Supreme Court, 179 on courts of appeals, 673 for the district courts and nine on the Court of International Trade. There are two tribal citizens serving as district court judges. Or 0.22988505747126 percent. In the history of the country there have been three Native Americans serving as district court judges.

Then diversity on the court is a larger issue. A recent report from the Center for American Progress said: “Since the nation’s founding, the federal judiciary has been overwhelmingly white and male. From the 18th century until the 1960s, white male judges comprised at least 99 percent of the federal judiciary. A woman was not appointed to an Article III judgeship until 1934 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and it was not until 1949, under President Harry S. Truman, that an African American was appointed to a federal circuit court.”

At the Interior Department, the agency responsible for the relationship between the government of the United States and tribal governments, there have been 53 secretaries. The math here is easy. Zero from 53 is still zero.

There was at least one candidate for the Interior before Haaland. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s name was floated to George Bush. Campbell is Northern Cheyenne. As then Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colorado, wrote about Campbell's qualifications. "As you know, his work in Congress included time as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, and he did extensive work on issues important to the West such as water, forestry, public land management and resource development.” Bush picked Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

(Related: The evolving politics of Ben Nighthorse Campbell)

And Rep. Ben Reifel, R-South Dakota, in another era might have been considered. He took a lame duck appointment as commissioner of Indian affairs under Nixon, serving just a few months. Or even Brig. Gen. Ely Parker, Seneca, who also was commissioner of Indian affairs in 1879 and had to resign his rank in the military in order to take the Indian affairs post.

But that was another time. But do the math and the answer often equals invisible.

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.

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