Associated Press and Indian Country Today

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland is a lead contender to become President-elect Joe Biden's Interior secretary, newly backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Reports Tuesday said Haaland's departure as a U.S. representative would leave a thin majority, leaving some to worry about what her appointment would mean for the House. 

On Wednesday, Pelosi pushed back, saying she was in favor of Haaland's potential appointment. 

"Congresswoman Haaland knows the territory, and if she is the president-elect's choice for an Interior secretary, then he will have made an excellent choice," Pelosi said in a statement. 

Haaland, vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, is from New Mexico's Pueblos of Laguna and Jemez. She would make history as the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

The Interior Department employs 70,000 people and is tasked with protecting the nation’s natural resources and honoring the government’s federal trust responsibilities. The agency manages America’s vast public lands and coastal waters while overseeing prominent departments such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education. 

Discussions with Haaland about the position are ongoing, according to a person familiar with the circumstances who was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Tuesday. 

(Previous story: Internet declares ‘Deb for Interior’ week)

Retiring Sen. Tom Udall, another New Mexico Democrat, has been among the other front-runners. And former Interior Department official Michael Connor, Taos Pueblo, is among other Native Americans believed to be under consideration. 

Many tribal officials and others are solidly behind Haaland, pushing back at suggestions of a different Native American candidate for the Interior Department.

More than 130 tribal leaders collaborated to write letters to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, citing Haaland’s bipartisan leadership. Native organizations including NDN Collective and IllumiNative created online campaigns, and celebrities like Mark Ruffalo have offered support via social media.

Many of Haaland’s colleagues also have rallied being her. In mid-November, more than 50 House Democrats penned a letter to the Biden transition team backing her for the post. 

Haaland has been cited saying she would accept a nomination as Interior secretary, including in an October interview with Indian Country Today.

“I think it's nice that people are thinking about me. And of course, if I ever had an opportunity to step up and do good work for this district, for the state of New Mexico, for our country, I would always be proud to do that,” Haaland said.

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This story has been updated to include comments from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.