Deb Haaland: Bringing history full circle

Democrat representative of New Mexico, Deb Haaland, President Joe Biden’s pick for Secretary of the Interior, began her confirmation hearing last week on Tuesday, Feb. 23 and completed it on Wednesday, Feb. 24. Conservative democrat of West Virginia, Senator Joe Manchin, is the deciding vote in Haaland’s confirmation, and he has expressed support for her appointment; if confirmed, she will be the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet. 

Leaders in Native government are looking forward to her appointment. Kandi White, the Native Energy and Climate campaign director for the Indigenous Environmental Network, thinks it will be impactful to have a Native woman leading the Department of the Interior, as Haaland not only understands the government-to-government relations between Native people and the U.S. but also understands the disproportionate effect of climate change on Native communities (Rott, 2020). Overseeing the Department of the Interior “would place [Haaland] in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, the agencies most involved in Native American issues and the ones that are most at loggerheads with tribes” (naturalresources.house.gov, 2020).

In his introduction to the confirmation hearing, Manchin describes the Secretary of the Interior’s position in detail: “Nearly 130 years ago, the Supreme Court described the Secretary of Interior as the guardian of the people of the United States over the public lands, but the court’s description barely scratches the surface of the broad scope of the secretary’s responsibilities. The secretary [is] responsible for managing more than 480 million surface acres, nearly one-fifth of the land area of the United States; 700 million acres of subsurface minerals; and 2.5 billion acres of the outer continental shelf. These lands include over 400 national parks, over 100 national monuments and over 500 wildlife refuges, along with nearly 500 dams and over 300 reservoirs that supply water to 31 million people and irrigate 10 million acres of farmland.” He said, “In addition, the secretary is responsible for reclaiming thousands of abandoned coal sites, paying health benefits to miners, overseeing one of our nation’s premier scientific agencies, the Geological Survey, and protecting thousands of endangered and threatened species from extinction.” Manchin goes on to say that “President Biden, in nominating Representative Haaland, expresses his confidence that she is up to the task and that she will be a true steward of our parks, natural resources and all of our lands” (C-Span, 2021). 

The Biden-Harris transition team called Haaland a “barrier-breaking public servant who has spent her career fighting for families, including in Tribal Nations, rural communities and communities of color,” who will be “ready on day one to protect our environment and fight for a clean energy future (Rott, 2020). Haaland’s House Natural Resources Committee colleague, democrat representative of Arizona, Raul Grijalva, wrote to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus recommending Haaland: “It is well past time that an indigenous person brings history full circle at the Department of [the] Interior” (Rott, 2020).

Haaland is a 35th generation New Mexican and a tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo. After running for Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico in 2014 on an unsuccessful ticket, she became the head of the New Mexico Democratic Party; she is the first Native American woman to lead a state party. Under Haaland’s leadership, the state Democratic Party canvassed Native voters in New Mexico; two years later, in 2016, they reclaimed both chambers of the state legislature, and in 2018, Haaland herself was elected to Congress. As Vice Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Haaland led a diverse team to introduce the Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature, a resolution of which Haaland said, “Globally, the loss of nature — accelerated by climate change — is putting up to one million species on the path to extinction. Conserving our lands and waters is essential to protecting humans and wildlife and stabilizing our climate, so I’m following the direction from leading scientists and introducing this resolution to set a national goal of conserving 30 percent of America’s land and oceans by 2030 to tackle this urgent crisis” (haaland.house.gov, 2020). The Biden administration has adopted this plan and prioritized it on the nation’s environmental agenda. Haaland also served as chairwoman of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands subcommittee of the Natural Resources Committee, to which she was appointed shortly after she came to Congress in 2019.

During Haaland’s confirmation hearing last week, many of the white, male Republicans who questioned Haaland behaved disrespectfully toward her, including speaking over her and labeling her a “‘radical” for her stance on climate change. Republican Senator John Barasso of Wyoming said that he was “troubled by many of [Haaland’s] radical views” on environmental issues, and Republican Senator Steve Daines of Wyoming expressed deep concern for Haaland’s “radical” support for President Biden’s pausing of oil and gas drilling. Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana questioned Haaland: “Will your administration be guided by a prejudice against fossil fuel, or will it be guided by science?” All three men have taken money from the oil and gas industries; Barasso has accepted nearly $1.2 million during his tenure in the Senate, while Daines has received $288,500 in the last five years alone, and Cassidy has raked in nearly $1.7 million over his Senate career (Milman and Lakhani, 2021). 

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah blamed protections for Bears Ears, a sacred place for the Native community in Utah which has been designated a national monument, for “impoverishing” locals; Haaland’s tribe is among those that consider Bears Ears sacred. Lee, a typical white colonizer seeking to profit off of stolen land, asked Haaland if she thought it was “appropriate for people with connections to the land … to be involved in the national monument designation process” (Julian Brave NoiseCat, 2021). 

Barasso questioned Haaland about her motivation for introducing legislation that would put grizzly bears under permanent federal protection and seemed very concerned that her care for a threatened species meant that she did not care for “the law of the land” (C-Span, 2021). Barasso questioned Haaland, “Will you commit to doing everything in your power to fight the frivolous lawsuits and delist species that government scientists have concluded are fully recovered?” (C-Span, 2021). When Haaland attempted to answer his question, he interrupted her, shouting “I’m talking about the law!” (C-Span, 2021). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website still lists grizzly bears as threatened and in recovery (fws.gov, 2021). Rebecca Ortega of Santa Clara Pueblo, N.M. commented on the hearing, “It was horrible. It was disrespectful. I just feel like if it would have been a white man or a white woman, he would never have yelled like that” (Fonseca and Brown, 2021).

Louisiana Senator John Kennedy went the furthest in his attacks, calling Haaland a “neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job” (Fonseca and Brown, 2021). 

Despite the attempts of the Republican senators to make Haaland look like an anti-American leftist who would prioritize animal rights above American lives and destroy America’s energy independence, she came out of her hearing dignified and ready to take on a historical position. Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan commented, “Indigenous people have been caring for the land since time immemorial” (Julian Brave NoiseCat, 2020). Haaland has proven through her work as a member of the House of Representatives that she is committed to doing just that; her service as Secretary of the Interior will protect this land and its creatures for the generations to come.

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