Native leaders in Minnesota celebrate Haaland’s historic confirmation to head Interior

By: and - March 16, 2021 12:48 pm

Rep. Debra Haaland (D-NM), President Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource, at the U.S. Capitol on February 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo by Leigh Vogel-Pool/Getty Images.

U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland made history on Monday when she became the first Native American to ever be confirmed by the U.S. Senate to hold a position in a president’s cabinet.

In a 51-40 vote, senators confirmed Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, to serve as secretary of Interior, where she will run a $21 billion agency that manages more than 450 million acres of public lands, including 50 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Nevada — as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

She was backed by four Republican senators: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, and Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

“It gives me hope,” Red Lake Nation Tribal Secretary Sam Strong said. “It gives a lot of tribal nations hope. She has the ability to interact with tribes in a just manner and to work toward reconciliation. She’ll be able to protect our lands, our resources and create paths for the government to follow through on its treaties.”

As Interior secretary, Haaland will play a major role in crafting policy through bureaus and offices including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Interior Department sets and enforces federal land use and environmental policies — including oil and gas leasing on public lands — while also shaping tribal policies on issues like economic development, education and health care.

Haaland will immediately be confronted with contentious issues.

The Red Lake Nation, the White Earth Nation and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe are currently suing to halt construction of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline, which would carry 32 million gallons of tar sands oil each day from Canada through northern Minnesota. The tribes say the project violates their treaty rights and fear the pipeline will eventually leak, contaminating water, forests and wild rice beds.

Elsewhere in northern Minnesota, environmental activists hope Haaland and the Biden administration will block the Twin Metals copper and nickel mines near the Boundary Waters, which were revived under former President Donald Trump.

President Joe Biden’s early moves on energy and environmental policy — including scrapping the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, freezing new leases for oil and gas development on federal lands and pledging to protect 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030 — made Haaland a big target for Republican members who disagree with the administration’s plans.

Her nomination was marked by repeated attacks from Republican lawmakers, including Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who labeled her as a “far-left ideologue” too “radical” for the position, and  Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, who called Haaland a “neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job,” though he later apologized, and said he was searching for another word.

Haaland also faced opposition in Minnesota from U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican who represents the area near the Boundary Waters that conservationists hope to protect from mining.

The tide of Republican disapproval ran the risk of alienating Native Americans in western states, and Democrats said that the same things haven’t been said about the administration’s white male nominees.

“I think we need to be honest with ourselves about what is going on here,” Sen. Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat, said on the floor Monday just before the vote.

“Once again, a woman, and a woman of color, is being held to a different standard and we need to name it. We have to come to grips with the reality. Time after time, strong women, and especially women of color, are attacked, when white men with the same views are welcomed to walk right through that door.”

Smith said that Haaland holds the same policy stances as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, yet neither was attacked the same way.

“This is clear when we see how few Republicans could even acknowledge the historic nature of Rep. Haaland’s nomination, choosing instead to focus on hostile questions about her tweets and whether she understands the law,” Smith said.

Democrats Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado, both former U.S. senators, wrote in USA Today that “were either of us the nominee to lead the Interior Department, we doubt that anyone would be threatening to hold up the nomination or wage a scorched earth campaign warning about ‘radical’ ideas.”

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a citizen of the White Earth Nation and highest ranking Native woman in executive office, said she cried “happy tears” to see Haaland confirmed.

“The first Native American woman to serve in any President’s cabinet is a powerful and long overdue moment for our country, especially considering one of the department’s first secretaries said ‘If Indians are to live at all, they must learn to live like white men’ and ‘the alternative to civilization is extermination,’” Flanagan wrote in an email.

Haaland’s appointment was also welcomed by Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Chairman Keith Anderson who called her confirmation “a long time coming” and White Earth Chairman Michael Fairbanks who said it “brings joy to my heart.”

“It’s a great time for Native Americans and Anishinaabe across Minnesota,” Fairbanks said. “Haaland is going to do great things because she understands what we go through as tribal nations.”

Haaland, 60, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and self-described 35th-generation New Mexican, was first elected to the House in 2018 after winning a six-candidate Democratic primary in the heavily Democratic 1st Congressional District in New Mexico. She is one of four Native Americans serving in the House.

She is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, where she chairs the panel’s Natural Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee. Haaland is expected to resign her seat after her confirmation; a special election will be scheduled.

Haaland went through one of the rockiest confirmation hearings so far for any of Biden’s nominees, where for two days she was challenged by western Republican senators who probed her positions on Biden administration energy policies and more.

Daines, the Montana Republican, questioned Haaland’s support of legislation that would reintroduce grizzly bears to tribal lands, and after the hearing he put a hold on Haaland’s nomination, along with Sen. Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican.

Lummis said she recognized the historic nature of Haaland’s nomination. “But there is no connection between her heritage and her support of the Green New Deal and attacking oil and natural gas production as a means to address climate change,” she said on the floor.

The holds forced an extra procedural vote. The same four Republicans who voted for her on Monday also backed advancing her nomination.

HuffPost reported that Graham was influenced by a letter from a tribal leader in his home state. Chief William Harris of the Catawba Indian Nation told Graham that Haaland’s nomination is “truly historic for our community.”

Senate Democrats praised Haaland for her conduct at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

“I will tell you that I have gone to more than my share of nomination hearings, but what I saw was a nominee with exceptional backbone and decency, who was being clear, being straightforward,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said on the floor last week.

Winona LaDuke, executive director of the environmental group Honor the Earth and member of the White Earth Nation, called Haaland’s confirmation a “gift to the United States and the lands and waters.”

“Ironically, Native people are legally the wards of the federal Government, and our Bureau of Indian Affairs is a part of Interior, the only two leggeds in the department. Deb Haaland is now my legal guardian, under federal law, and I feel grateful for her appointment,” LaDuke said in an email.

As the leader of the Interior Department, which houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Halaand’s appointment also has ramifications for some 574 tribes and their citizens.

“If you look at the treaties, there were promises made by the federal government for education, health, food and job training. None of these promises have been kept, and these programs have been underfunded for decades and decades,” Red Lake’s Strong said. “My hope is that she’ll be an advocate to make right on those wrongs.”

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Jane Norman
Jane Norman

As the Washington Bureau Chief of States Newsroom, Jane directs national coverage, managing staff and freelance reporters in the nation’s capital and assigning and editing state-specific daily and enterprise stories. Jane is a veteran of more than three decades in journalism.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.