Senate Confirms Deb Haaland as Nation’s First Native American Cabinet Secretary

Haaland will serve as the U.S. secretary of the Interior.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., speaks during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior Secretary on Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Congresswoman Deb Haaland was confirmed by the Senate Monday as the secretary of the Interior by a 51-40 vote, making her the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet. 

A 35th generation New Mexican and member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Haaland was one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress in 2018. The Democratic representative who represents greater Albuquerque quickly ascended to a senior position in the House’s Natural Resources committee.

Haaland is outspoken in her opposition to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. At one of her two nomination hearings last month, Republicans peppered her with questions on her support of the halting of the project and President Joe Biden’s day-one executive order revoking a permit required for its construction.

Idaho Senator James Risch, a Republican, asked Haaland more than three times during one of the hearings if she supported the president’s decision to halt the project. She deferred to Biden’s presidential authority.

“Senator, if I say that I support President Biden’s agenda, I assume that you could take my answer as a yes,” Haaland replied.

Haaland has been criticized by some Republicans for her views on fracking and fossil fuels, among other issues, and most senators in that party voted against her Monday. However, four voted in her favor: Sens. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and Susan Collins of Maine.

Haaland also discussed her family’s commitment to public service during the hearings, describing how her father and mother were veterans, serving in the Marines and Navy, respectively. She said her parents taught her the value of hard work, and her relationship with her grandparents taught her the value of tradition and respecting the environment.

Many Native Americans hosted virtual watch parties while she answered questions from senators last month, and many tribal groups celebrated her confirmation Monday.

Nikki Pitre, executive director of the Center for Native American Youth and member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said in a statement Monday that Haaland’s voice would be that of Native Americans’ ancestors, youth and future generations.

“Secretary Haaland is a living representation of a future of Indigenous communities in this country,” Pitre said in a statement. “Native youth are proud to join the fight for clean air, clean water, healthy wildlife and the protection of sacred lands. As Secretary Haaland states: Like our ancestors who came before us, leaving a ladder down for you all to climb is one of my priorities.”

Julia Bernal, director of the Pueblo Action Alliance — a Native American group that promotes cultural sustainability and other Indigenous values — said in a statement Monday the department would be better served through a Pueblo, Indigenous, feminist’s perspective.

“Deb Haaland will bring that worldview into land and water management practices that will work towards a just transition to a cleaner energy economy and more equitable approaches to better frontline and Indigenous communities who have suffered from the presence of the oil and gas industry,” Bernal said in a statement.

The National Congress of American Indians noted in a statement Tuesday that the Interior Department, which manages public lands, waters, resources and wildlife, also holds a fiduciary duty to more 574 tribal nations and more than 5.2. million American Indian and Alaska Native people.

The organization’s president, Fawn Sharp, said in the statement that the “impact of the Native American representation at the top of a federal agency that so directly affects our daily lives cannot be overstated.”

“The relationship between Tribal Nations and the federal government has been fractured for far too long. Having an ally like Secretary Haaland who is not only deeply qualified but is from our communities has the potential to transform the government-to-government relationship that will be vital in advancing Native American issues for generations,” Sharp added.

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