President-elect Joe Biden elected New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as her candidate for interior minister on Thursday, a historic election that would make her the first Native American to lead the powerful federal body that has influenced the country’s tribes for generations.
Tribal leaders and activists around the country, along with many Democrats, cheered Haaland’s selection after urging Biden for several weeks to elect her to head the Interior Ministry. They supported her candidacy even when fears that Democrats would risk their majority in the House if Haaland gave his seat in Congress seemed to threaten her nomination.
With Haaland’s nomination, the indigenous people will for the first time in their lives see an Indian at the table where the highest decisions are made – and so will everyone else, says OJ Semans, a Rosebud Sioux voice activist who was in Georgia on Thursday and helped take out the native the vote for two Senate drains. “It has made people aware that Indians still exist,” he said.
Haaland, 60, is a member of Laguna Pueblo and, as she likes to say, a 35th generation resident of New Mexico. The role of Home Secretary would give her the responsibility of an agency that has a huge swing not only over the nearly 600 federally recognized tribes but also over much of the country’s major public lands, waterways, wildlife, national parks and mineral wealth.
Haaland tweeted after the news was announced that “growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me hard.
“I will be tough on all of us, our planet and our entire protected country,” she promised.
The election breaks a 245-year record of non-native officials, mostly men, serving as the highest-ranking federal official in U.S. Indian affairs. The federal government often worked to remove Indians from their land and until recently to integrate them into white culture.
“You have to understand – you take the interior in full circle,” said Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and a master of Haaland for the job. “For several years its heritage was the abandonment of the native people of this country, of expulsion, of cultural genocide.”
With Haaland’s nomination “it is in itself a big message”, said Grijalva.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called it “truly a historic and unprecedented day for all indigenous peoples.”
“I’m SO ELATED,” tweeted the head of the progressive democracy’s sunrise movement, Varshini Prakash. “This will be the first time a native person – and a bad climate master woman on it – will hold any presidency. Congratulations to @JoeBiden for making history. ”
Activists who go out of their way believe that their efforts and the native vote helped turn Arizona around especially for Biden and secure the presidency.
“There is a sense that something is changing,” said Ashley Nicole McCray, a member of the absent Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma and of a domestic environmental coalition. “Finally, we have come to the point where the indigenous people are no longer silent.”
But Biden’s election could lose further, at least temporarily, which the Democrats, with a small majority, maintain in the House. Biden has already elected several lawmakers from the House, including the Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond and Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, to serve in his administration.
Some in Biden’s transition team had expressed concern about getting further into the already thinned majority of the Democratic House for a new senior administration. But Biden decided that the barrier-breaking aspect of her nomination and her experience as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources made her the right choice for the time being.
The president-elect has methodically filled the offices of his cabinet, adding North Carolina environmental official Michael Regan as his candidate to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Biden previously introduced South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg earlier this week as his transportation secretary and announced Thursday that former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was his candidate for energy secretary.
In a statement Thursday night, Biden said he had assembled a “brilliant, tested, groundbreaking team” that “will be ready on day one to meet the existential threat of climate change.”
“They share my view that we do not have time to waste to meet the climate crisis, protect our air and drinking water and deliver justice to communities that have long borne the brunt of environmental damage,” the president-elect said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear on Wednesday that Biden had her blessing in electing Haaland and said she would make an “excellent choice” as interior minister. South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House and a close Biden ally, also supported Haaland for the job.
Haaland is one of the first two Native American women in the house. She told the Associated Press before her nomination to see the difference her position in Congress made for ordinary Indians who came to her with business before the federal government.
“They felt comfortable launching only the questions they wanted,” Haaland told the Associated Press in an interview before being appointed. For example, they would say “Oh, we do not have to explain tribal rule to you”, which means the constitutionally guaranteed status of tribes as independent nations.
Haaland previously worked as the head of New Mexico’s Democratic Party, as the tribal administrator and as the administrator of an organization that provides services for adults with developmental disabilities.
Born to a marine veteran father and a marine veteran mother, Haaland describes himself as a single mother who sometimes had to rely on food stamps. She says she still pays student loans after college and law for herself and college for her daughter.
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, who is retiring after 22 years in Congress and was originally considered the top leader of the Secretary of the Interior, congratulated Haaland on her selection, calling it “significant and well-deserved.”
Previously, the highest-ranking administrative official was known to have Native American legacy Charles Curtis, who served as Herbert Hoover’s vice president and whose mother was a quarter of the Kaw tribe.