Deb Haaland could become the first Native American to lead a US governmental department after she was nominated for interior secretary on Thursday by President-elect Joe Biden.
Haaland, 60, is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and, as she likes to say, a 35th-generation resident of New Mexico. The role of interior secretary would put her in charge of an agency that has tremendous sway not only over the nearly 600 federally recognised tribes, but also over much of the nation’s vast public lands, waterways, wildlife, national parks and mineral wealth.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” she said in a tweet following the announcement.
“Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all our protected land,” she added.
Tribal leaders and activists around the country, along with many Democratic figures, cheered Haaland’s selection after urging Biden for weeks to choose her to lead the Department of Interior.
Her selection breaks a 245-year record of non-Native officials, mostly male, serving as the top federal official over American Indian affairs. The federal government often worked to dispossess Native Americans of their land and, until recently, to assimilate them into white culture.
“You’ve got to understand — you’re taking Interior full circle,” said Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and a champion of Haaland for the job. “For years, its legacy was the disenfranchisement of the Native people of this country, of displacement, of cultural genocide.”
With Haaland’s nomination, “that in itself is a huge message,” Grijalva said.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called it “truly a historic and unprecedented day for all Indigenous people.”
“There’s a feeling something is changing,” said Ashley Nicole McCray, a member of the Absentee Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma and of an indigenous environmental coalition. “Finally, we’ve come to this point where Indigenous sentiment is no longer being silenced.”
Biden said in a statement that on climate he had appointed a “brilliant, tested, trailblazing team” that “will be ready on day one to confront the existential threat of climate change with a unified national response rooted in science and equity.”
“They share my belief that we have no time to waste to confront the climate crisis, protect our air and drinking water, and deliver justice to communities that have long shouldered the burdens of environmental harms,” he also said.
He plans to introduce Haaland — and other picks for his Cabinet — at an event Saturday in Wilmington, Delaware.
Haaland previously worked as head of New Mexico’s Democratic Party, as tribal administrator and as an administrator for an organisation providing services for adults with developmental disabilities.
Born to a Marine veteran father and a Navy veteran mother, Haaland describes herself as a single mother who sometimes had to rely on food stamps. She says she is still paying off student loans after college and law school for herself and college for her daughter.
Previously, the highest-ranking administration official known to have Native American heritage was Charles Curtis, who served as Herbert Hoover’s vice president and whose mother was one-quarter Kaw tribe.