Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

A fierce Indigenous woman is now the caretaker of the nation’s public lands and waters for the first time in U.S. history.

Deb Haaland was confirmed as the nation’s 54th Secretary of the Interior in a 51-40 vote Monday, making her the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan broke from party lines to vote to confirm Haaland, a notable choice given other Republican senators publicly saying she was not the right candidate.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and several other Western senators missed the vote, citing a severe winter storm that dumped 3 feet of snow on parts of Colorado and Wyoming, causing multiple flight cancellations. Fellow Wyoming Republican Cynthia Lummis and Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper of Colorado also missed the vote.

Haaland will be sworn into office either Wednesday or Thursday by Vice President Kamala Harris, she said at a public watch party hosted by IllumiNative and NDN Collective. When she is sworn in, Haaland will become the highest ranked Indigenous person in an executive office across the country.

The incoming interior secretary will sign her resignation letters Monday and send them out Tuesday, officially removing her as a member of Congress.

Her daughter, Somáh, plans to livestream the swearing-in ceremony from her Instagram account, @coffeequeer.

“She's ready to make sure that we share that moment with the world,” Haaland said. 

Incoming Interior Secretary Haaland stands eighth in line to the presidency. She is also only the third woman to serve in the position — a low number in stark comparison to the 50 men who have served — and in an accomplishment fitting for March’s National Women’s History Month. 

Haaland is a citizen of Laguna Pueblo, and has ties to Jemez Pueblo through her grandfather, which she frequently cites. She spent her career in New Mexico as a former small business owner, organizer and tribal administrator before running for Congress.

In November, Haaland was reelected for a second term in Congress representing New Mexico’s first Congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 2018, she made history as one of the first two Native women elected to Congress.

Deb Haaland - Interior secretary nomination timeline

Now Haaland will be at the helm of the Interior, a sprawling government agency in charge of 70,000 employees, one-fifth of the nation’s land, and key offices in natural resources. The agency also oversees national parks, wildlife refuges and works with endangered species conservation.

A key role of the Interior’s duty is to respectfully manage the government’s federal trust responsibilities promised to tribal nations. She will also be leading the most important government agencies affecting Indian Country, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.

All eyes are on Haaland at the helm who has frequently vowed tribal consultation, inclusivity and collaboration in her work.

(Related: Deb Haaland faces momentous questions at Interior)

President Joe Biden, who ran on a presidential platform with goals to “restore the soul of America” to “build back better” has already confirmed a diverse and record-breaking Cabinet.

Some notable confirmations include Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, the first woman to lead the department; Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the first Black person to lead the Pentagon; and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay Cabinet member.

Haaland’s path to the Interior department has included wide support from Indigenous leaders, advocates and allies.

For months, hundreds of tribal leaders have submitted letters of support for her confirmation. Some of the nation’s most prominent Native organizations came together in a way they never had before to support Haaland.

(Related: ‘There's just gonna be no stopping my sister’)

Organizations like the National Congress of American Indians, IllumiNatives, NDN Collective and others created online campaigns, social media tool kits and “tweet-storms.”

Frequently celebrities, including Mark Ruffalo, lended their star power and social media platform to support Haaland.

“If an Indigenous woman from humble beginnings can be confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, our country and its promise still holds true for everyone,” Haaland said in her opening statement of her hearing before the Senate energy committee last month.

Haaland was born to a Marine veteran father and a Navy veteran mother. She has described herself as a single mother who sometimes had to rely on food stamps and is still paying off student loans after college and law school.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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