Indian Country Today
President-elect Joe Biden, in a historic move, has chosen Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the U.S. Interior Department. If confirmed by the Senate, the New Mexico Democrat would be the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary.
"A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior," Haaland tweeted Thursday night.
"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."
Biden confirmed the nomination late Thursday as part of his climate team, which also includes secretary of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality and national climate advisor.
“This brilliant, tested, trailblazing team will be ready on Day One to confront the existential threat of climate change with a unified national response rooted in science and equity," the president-elect said in a statement.
Sources familiar with the decision on Haaland told Indian Country Today she is considered a "barrier-breaking public servant" and a nominee who will hit the ground running.
Haaland, who is from the Pueblos of Laguna and Jemez, became one of the first two Native women elected to Congress in 2018.
The Interior Department is tasked with protecting the nation’s natural resources and honoring the government’s federal trust responsibilities. It 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. The agency employs 70,000 people.
Haaland’s nomination has been backed by many Indigenous leaders, advocates and allies for weeks.
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 shared their elation Thursday as news of the decision spread.
“The nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland — a champion of the environment and of Native people — heralds a new era of conservation, progress and healing in the Department of the Interior that is long overdue,” said Gussie Lord, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Tribal Partnerships Program.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called it a "truly a historic and unprecedented day for all Indigenous people."
"I congratulate her, and I also thank the Biden-Harris team for making a statement and keeping their word to place Native Americans in high-level Cabinet positions," he said in a statement.
Julian Brave Noisecat, a vocal advocate who is a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq'escen and a descendant of the Lil'Wat Nation of Mount Currie, highlighted Haaland's unique position, saying: "The next Secretary of Interior will be a Laguna Pueblo woman who went to Standing Rock in 2016 and cooked for the people."
Groups that shared their support on social media and in statements included the National Congress of American Indians, the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and the National Native American Law Student Association.
(Related: Support swells for Deb Haaland Cabinet post)
Many of Haaland’s colleagues in Congress also had rallied behind her. In mid-November, more than 50 House Democrats penned a letter to the Biden transition team backing her for the post.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined in, saying Haaland "knows the territory," and if Biden nominated her, "he will have made an excellent choice."
Haaland was chosen for the post over former Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor, Taos Pueblo, and two U.S. senators from New Mexico: Tom Udall, who is retiring, and Martin Heinrich. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico was offered the job but turned it down, according to the Hill.
(Related: What happens to Deb Haaland’s House seat?)
Udall issued a statement Thursday congratulating Haaland and voicing his confidence in her leadership.
“Congresswoman Haaland is fully qualified to lead the Department of the Interior — through her service in the Congress, to the state of New Mexico and to Indian Country, and through her lived experience," he said. "I know it will be significant and meaningful for Native Americans, especially Native women, to see Secretary Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, leading the department that is tasked with meeting many of our responsibilities to Tribes and managing inherently Indigenous land."
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.
In her first term in Congress, Haaland has held leadership positions on a number of committees, currently serving as vice chair of the Committee on Natural Resources and chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. She also sits on the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples, the House Armed Services Committee, the Subcommittee on Readiness, and the Subcommittee on Military Personnel.
She previously worked as head of New Mexico’s Democratic Party, as tribal administrator and as an administrator for an organization providing services for adults with developmental disabilities.
Born to a Marine veteran father and a Navy veteran mother, Haaland describes herself as a single mother who sometimes had to rely on food stamps. She says she is still paying off student loans after college and law school for herself and college for her daughter.
Biden, who has pledged to pick a diverse leadership team, said at a Native candidate forum in January that he would nominate and appoint people who “look like the country they serve, including Native Americans.”
The pick breaks a 245-year record of non-Native officials, mostly male, serving as the very top federal official over Indian affairs in a federal government that worked to dispossess them of their land and, until recently, assimilate them into White culture.
It could also further deplete, at least temporarily, the narrow majority Democrats maintain in the House. Biden has already selected several lawmakers from the chamber, including Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond and Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, to serve in his administration.
Interior’s broad authority includes managing federal relations with tribes, administering tens of millions of acres of land and mineral rights held in trust for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, running national parks and making decisions affecting millions of miles of U.S. lands and waterways, wildlife, endangered species, and oil and gas and mining.
Biden has promised the nation's largest effort yet to curb the oil, gas and coal emissions that are causing the rapid deterioration of the climate, and Interior would play an important part in that.
The president-elect has been methodically filling the posts in his Cabinet, adding North Carolina environmental official Michael Regan as his nominee to lead the EPA. Biden introduced former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg earlier this week as his transportation secretary and announced Thursday that former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was his nominee for energy secretary.
Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at email@example.com.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story has been updated with reaction.