Biden picks Rep. Deb Haaland to lead Interior, would be first Native American in Cabinet

President-elect Joe Biden has reportedly selected Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., as secretary of the interior. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position.

According to a Thursday afternoon report from the Washington Post that was subsequently confirmed by other outlets, Biden has chosen the 60-year-old first-term congresswoman for the post that has authority over millions of acres of public lands and hundreds of national park sites, as well as 326 tribal reservations via the department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Tribal organizations and progressives had been pushing hard for Haaland’s appointment, with more than 50 Democratic members of Congress writing to Biden last month to “strongly recommend” he select the tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo.

“She has been a champion for our environment and public lands and has worked tirelessly to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and Indian tribes,” read the letter. “By selecting her to be your Secretary of the Interior, you can make history by giving Native Americans a seat at the Cabinet table for the first time.”

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called the selection of Haaland “truly a historic and unprecedented day for all Indigenous people.”

Debra Haaland
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“I congratulate her, and I also thank the Biden-Harris team for ... keeping their word to place Native Americans in high-level cabinet positions,” Nez said in a statement. “I am looking forward to continuing to work with Congresswoman Haaland and the Biden-Harris Administration in the years to come.”

Haaland was widely regarded as a favorite for the job, but Biden also faced pressure not to choose a Democratic member of the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold a slim majority for the next two years after losing a dozen seats in November’s election. Biden has already selected Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana and Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio for roles in his administration. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman who was a crucial early supporter of Biden’s, expressed concern about drawing appointees from the House: “[Losing] two votes I can handle,” Clyburn told reporters last week. “I don’t know if I can handle three.”

“I’m certainly concerned by the slimming of the majority,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on a Dec. 9 call with reporters. “I have indicated to the administration very early on that I wanted them to be very careful in terms of the members that they appointed from the Congress given the closeness of our majority.”

Pelosi publicly expressed her support for Haaland on Wednesday.

“Congresswoman Haaland knows the territory, and if she is the President-elect’s choice for Interior Secretary, then he will have made an excellent choice,” Pelosi told the Washington Post.

When Haaland first won election in New Mexico’s First District in 2018, she became one of the first Native American women ever elected to Congress, along with Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat from Kansas. The district — located in the north central area of the state and including most of Albuquerque — is considered a safe Democratic seat.

Haaland is vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. Previously she was chair of New Mexico’s state Democratic Party. She joined protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 and had expressed her support for the abolition of the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency following her primary win in 2018. Haaland had said previously that if she was nominated for the Interior position she would, according to Reuters, “seek to usher in an expansion of renewable energy production on federal land to contribute to the fight against climate change.”

Haaland will likely work to unwind some of the actions by the Trump administration that have outraged environmentalists, including reducing the size of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas development. She will also have to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit Native American communities disproportionately hard.

“There’s no doubt it would be historic,” Haaland told Vox last month. “It would be symbolic, and it would be profound, especially when we think about how the federal government essentially threw out their federal Indian policies throughout the centuries and tried to exterminate Native Americans across the country.”


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