Biden Pick Would Be 1st Native American Leader at Interior

Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M. removes her face mask to speak during a news conference on Capitol Hill on May 27. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (CN) — For the first time in the nation’s history, a Native American has been chosen to lead the department that oversees and manages America’s most cherished parks, waterways and tribal lands.

President-elect Joe Biden tapped first-term U.S. Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico on Thursday to serve as secretary of the interior.

Haaland, 60, is from Laguna Pueblo, and will oversee a department that has sweeping influence over the affairs of indigenous peoples across the country who for years have seen an imbalance in their representation in the halls of Congress and in public policy.

The Interior Department is made up of many branches that oversee and manage, among other things, oil and gas production to mineral rights to wildlife refuges, federal trusts, fish and game licensing, and regulation. 

Elected during the 2018 midterms, Haaland was made chair of the House Natural Resources Committee in January 2019, a quick ascendancy and easy transition for the lawmaker who was vocal during her campaign on the need to combat climate change, invest in renewable energy and solar production, and shore up wind production in her home state of New Mexico.

Before being tapped for the secretary role, Haaland was also a member of the president-elect’s climate engagement advisory council.

“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland said Thursday evening in a statement on Twitter. “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.”

Julia Bernal, executive director of the Pueblo Action Alliance, a community organizing network near Albuquerque lauded the incoming Biden administration pick, noted Haaland’s long history advocating for the protection of cultural lands from the oil and gas industry.

“Nominating Congresswoman Haaland as the secretary of DOI would provide the sovereign tribal nations a chance to be an integral voice when it comes to how our lands and waters are managed,” Bernal said. “In order for us to mitigate climate change and address other adverse environmental impacts, an Indigenous feminist perspective on resource management is the only way to shift the paradigm and protect our ancestral lands for generations of the future.”

Her next task is a daunting one, joining an agency that has remained intensely scrutinized across administrations both Democrat and Republican.

Of late, the department has been marked by high turnover, vacancies, and a lack of transparency when it comes to regulatory rollback and spending. A directive from President Donald Trump to place commerce and development ahead of conservation was often the undertow that dragged Interior officials under intense waves of congressional oversight.

Lauren Pagel, policy director of Earthworks — an environmental group born out of a mining reform initiative founded by former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, said Haaland’s selection signals the willingness of the Biden-Harris administration to reverse much of what has unfolded under President Trump.

Given the White House’s effort to open public lands up to mining and ease oversight, however, she noted the task is herculean

“We urge interior to push reforms to our public lands mining rules and follow through on its commitment to end oil and gas leasing,” Pagel said.

Haaland’s rise to the Interior leaves open another Democratic seat in the House of Representatives. President-elect Biden has also called up Ohio Democrat Marcia Fudge and Louisiana Democrat Cedric Richmond to serve in his cabinet. Fudge was picked to serve as secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Richmond will serve as Biden’s senior adviser in the White House.

If Haaland is confirmed it leaves a slim one-seat margin for Democrats to retain control of the House. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nonetheless approved of the pick, giving the nod Wednesday when the New Mexico lawmaker’s name was first floated in news reports.

“Congresswoman Haaland knows the territory and if she is the president-elect’s choice for interior secretary, then he will have made the right choice,” she said.

The lives of some 1.9 million Native Americans in the United States are intimately tied to decisions at the Interior.

In early 2017, as the Trump administration was first getting its footing, members of a House subcommittee tasked with overseeing matters of the Interior and Energy departments were visibly dismayed at reports from the Government Accountability Office, the Interior, and the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General on the state of schools for indigenous children.

The reports cataloged snow drifting into classrooms, mold clinging to the walls, and a persistent deficit of resources and funding among the 183 schools on Indian lands servicing some 42,000 students. 

What was needed then isn’t much different now. A ProPublica report published this August detailed at length the warnings offered to the Bureau of Indian Education to improve conditions or leave generations of indigenous children behind.

Mary Kendall, a former deputy inspector general at the Interior, told lawmakers three years ago the way forward would likely rely on more than oversight.  

“Serious action by new leadership at the Office of Indian Affairs would help,” she said.

If Haaland is confirmed, whomever she taps to lead that office will come under her purview.

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