A push emerges for the first Native American Interior Secretary

If confirmed, Rep. Deb Haaland would oversee the well-being of the nation's 1.9 million indigenous people.
If confirmed, Rep. Deb Haaland would oversee the well-being of the nation's 1.9 million indigenous people.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A coalition of Democrats, Native Americans and liberal activists is urging President-elect Joe Biden to nominate one of Congress' first Native American women to head the Interior Department, putting an American Indian in control of vast swaths of the continent and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland as Interior secretary would have undeniable symbolic power. If confirmed, a Native American for the first time would oversee 500 million acres of public lands, including national parks, oil and gas drilling sites, and endangered species habitat, and control the federal agencies most responsible for the well-being of the nation's 1.9 million indigenous people.

Haaland and Sharice Davids of Kansas made history in 2018 as the first two Native American women elected to Congress, and Haaland would do so again as the first Native American Cabinet secretary. But her lack of policy experience worries some Biden advisers, who have suggested another Native American candidate: Michael L. Connor, a deputy Interior secretary in the Obama administration, whose experience is unquestioned, even if he lacks the star power of Haaland.

Haaland is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, and Connor is from the Taos Pueblo, sovereign nations near Albuquerque and Taos that are among the country's 574 federally recognized tribes.

For either candidate, a nomination would hold enormous power for Native Americans. The Interior Department has for much of the nation's history governed federal lands and often dislodged and abused Native Americans. In 1972, about 500 Native American activists took over the department's headquarters in Washington, protesting living standards and broken treaties.

The next Interior Secretary also will be entrusted to restore environmental protections to the millions of acres of public lands that the Trump administration has opened up to drilling, mining, logging and construction.

Historians and Native American leaders said that appointing a Native American to head the Interior Department would be a profound moment in American history.

"The Department of Interior was the driving force of modern day genocide against the Native American peoples," said Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean and professor of law at the University of Utah, and a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians. "We would be moving from the shadows of perpetuated genocide to a chair at the table, from being classified as a group of people that the federal government was trying to destroy to having a president say, 'I see you and value you to the point that I will raise you to the highest level of decision-making in the country.'" (END OPTIONAL TRIM.) A spokesman for the Biden transition team, Sean Savett, said that no personnel decisions regarding the Interior Department have been made. But Biden's campaign promises included detailed proposals to improve equality for Native Americans, including a promise that "Biden will ensure tribes have a seat at the table at the highest levels of the federal government." Tribal and environmental activists are pushing him to follow through.

The Lakota People's Law Action Center has launched a petition, supported by more than 120 tribal leaders, in support of Haaland.

"Like no year prior, 2020 has shown us what happens when we fail to see the importance of putting proper leaders in position to safeguard society," the petition reads.

A separate petition launched by liberal activists and signed by at least 25,000 people also calls on Biden to name a Native American Interior secretary.

Actor and environmental advocate Mark Ruffalo posted a video on Twitter with tribal leaders speaking in support of Haaland.

"It's time for the first ever Native American to serve in the president's Cabinet to uphold tribal sovereignty and to protect our public lands as secretary of Interior," said Brandon Yellowbird-Stevens, vice chairman of the Oneida nation, in the video.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.) Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who chairs the committee that oversees the Interior Department, sent a letter to Biden signed by at least 50 colleagues urging the nomination of Haaland, who has served on Grijalva's Natural Resources Committee since her arrival in Congress last year.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) "The Department of Interior was essentially set up not to take care of Indigenous people - it was set up to tear them down and disenfranchise them," Grijalva said in an interview. "To come full circle, historically, and to put an Indigenous person in front of Interior who can do the job - you don't often get that kind of opportunity to make history." Grijalva pushed back at the suggestion that Haaland was unqualified for the job.

"She's not window dressing," he said. "She's competent. She's a pro, both politically and in terms of policy, and as a member of the Resources Committee and chair of the Public Lands subcommittee she has had to endure the Trump administration's abuse of the Interior Department."

Haaland has made clear that she wants the job.

"It would be an honor to move the Biden-Harris climate agenda forward, help repair the government-to-government relationship with Tribes that the Trump Administration has ruined, and serve as the first Native American Cabinet secretary in our nation's history," she said in a statement.

Haaland campaigned in 2018 against the Trump administration's hard-line immigration policies and promoted indigenous sovereignty as a "35th-generation New Mexican." She argues that many of the issues affecting native communities - such as low-wage jobs and violence against women - afflict other groups as well.

In 2015, she became head of the state Democratic Party and helped to flip the New Mexico state House to Democratic control.

A child of military veterans, she attended 13 public schools before graduating from high school, then started a salsa company and worked as a cake decorator before putting herself through college and law school using both food stamps and student loans.

But some people advising Biden are concerned about management at one of the federal government's most sprawling agencies, which oversees conservation and oil and gas drilling on public lands and off the nation's coastline; a vast network of dams and reservoirs across the West; the Fish and Wildlife Service, a major federal science agency; the U.S. Geological Survey; and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, which manages the financial assets of American Indians held in trust.

They also worry that the confirmation of Haaland to a Cabinet post would temporarily diminish Democrats' already narrow majority in the House - until a special election could be held in her Democratic district.

Those people back the appointment of Connor.

In an emailed statement, Connor wrote, "It would be an honor to serve in the Biden-Harris Administration and carry out the important work necessary to address the country's most pressing challenges." Connor worked in the agency throughout the Clinton administration, including four years as director of the Secretary's Indian Water Rights Office, managing negotiations between tribes and the federal government on water issues. He later worked for former Senator Jeff Bingaman, on land, water, energy and Native American issues before returning to Interior during the Obama administration, where he became the first Native American to hold the No. 2 post.

"It's more about who has the qualifications than who is the public face," said Sianna Lieb, a progressive activist who co-launched the petition urging Biden to name a Native American as Interior secretary. "Having been in the Interior Department is a good start - the qualifications are knowing how to run the department."