President-elect Joe Biden is under pressure to make history with his pick to lead the Department of the Interior by nominating the first-ever Native American to lead the federal agency, which oversees federal land and natural resources, and administers most programs related to the more than 550 federally recognized tribes.
A leading contender is Deb Haaland, a second-term House of Representatives lawmaker from New Mexico whose potentially history-making nomination has inspired a persuasion campaign by tribal leaders, environmental groups and progressive leaders. They say the congresswoman — a lawyer, climate activist and enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo — is uniquely suited to be Interior’s first Indigenous leader.
“We believe it is long past time that a Native American person serve as Secretary of the Interior,” more than 150 elected leaders of tribal nations wrote in a letter last week to Biden’s transition team.
“Rep. Haaland has championed the environment, helped lead efforts to address climate change, and worked to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between our Tribes and the United States — all issues within the Department of the Interior’s responsibilities.”
The high-profile push to bring Haaland’s Interior candidacy to the fore began just days after television networks declared Biden and Kamala Harris the winners of the 2020 election.
On November 13, a dozen environmental organizations said in a letter to Biden that they could “think of no better person to run the Department of the Interior” than Haaland, who would make the agency a “true long-term steward of our nation’s most precious resources.”
The next day, three dozen groups affiliated with the Indigenous Environmental Network sent a letter saying Haaland was the ideal pick to “help facilitate the Biden/Harris vision for dealing with climate change, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in Indian Country, ensuring an effective economic just recovery plan for Tribes and communities, overseeing the protection of public lands and fulfilling all treaty and statutory obligations.”
“The first Indigenous woman to head the Department of Interior will inspire and provide hope not only to the Indigenous Peoples of this land, but also to all those who have vision for the future,” the network wrote.
Haaland’s congressional office declined to comment on the selection process for the Interior post. Biden’s transition team declined to comment on its deliberations or when the president-elect will make an announcement.
Haaland has made history before. When she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2018, she was one of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress, along with fellow Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids from Kansas. Haaland, a former state party chair, had centered her campaign on combating climate change.
During Haaland’s first term, she became vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, where she also chaired its subcommittee on national parks and public lands. Haaland, the daughter of two veterans — her father was in the Marines and her mother in the Navy — also serves on the chamber’s Armed Services Committee. She handily won her re-election bid in November by more than 15 points.
More than 50 of Haaland’s Democratic House colleagues said in a letter to Biden last month that “she has distinguished herself as a respected leader within our caucus” during her first two years in office, citing her leadership on climate issues and her committee stewardship of two public lands bills that were signed into law.
“You can make history by giving Native Americans a seat at the Cabinet table for the first time. We strongly recommend that you nominate Rep. Deb Haaland for this important role,” National Resources Committee Chair Raul Grijalva wrote on behalf of the lawmakers.
If Haaland has a factor working against her it is the same one that her supporters believe makes her the best pick for the job: her bona fides with the Democratic Party’s progressive wing and policy positions that are to the left of Biden’s.
Haaland protested the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016. She backs the Green New Deal to address climate change and economic inequality, which Biden does not support in full but calls a “crucial framework.” She holds a leadership role in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Before backing Biden, Haaland co-chaired the presidential campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a fellow progressive.
Haaland then became enthusiastically involved in Biden’s campaign, joining his Climate Engagement Advisory Council and hosting Indigenous Women for Biden events. She helped the campaign mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day by appearing with other elected officials and tribal leaders at an October event that highlighted Biden’s plan for tribal nations.
In recent weeks, unnamed “Biden advisers” have questioned whether Haaland has the right experience for the Interior role. A Biden representative said the remarks were not coming from members of the transition team. “No one is trying to discount Deb Haaland — or her experience,” he said.
No decision has been made, and other candidates are still under consideration, including Michael Connor, a member of the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and a former deputy Interior secretary during the Obama administration. Also thought to be a serious contender is New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat who is retiring at the end of the year and, shortly after the election, released a document highlighting his work on behalf of Native communities.
The Interior Department was created in 1849 and its leader holds a Cabinet-level position that requires Senate confirmation. It employs about 70,000 people across nine divisions, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
Biden’s Interior pick will likely move early on to reverse a push during the Trump administration to open additional federal lands to oil and gas extraction. Trump’s first Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, left the post after the department’s Office of Inspector General began investigating expensive flights and other expenditures. His replacement, David Bernhardt, was a deputy secretary and oil industry lobbyist. Biden has promised to end all new fossil fuel extraction on public lands.