The Senate on Monday confirmed Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe of New Mexico, as the 54th secretary of the Interior Department, the massive federal agency that oversees roughly one-fifth of all land in the U.S.
Haaland, 60, makes history as the first Native American Cabinet secretary and the first Native American to lead the the 172-year-old department.
Monday’s vote was 51-40. Every Democrat present voted to confirm Haaland. Only four Republicans — Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Susan Collins (Maine) — crossed the aisle to support her nomination.
The progressive lawmaker’s ascent to one of the most powerful posts in government has energized Indigenous groups and represents a monumental shift for an agency once central to the U.S. government’s hideous treatment of Native Americans, including removing them from ancestral lands, forcing them onto reservations and trying to assimilate them into “civilized” American society.
“The historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me, but I will say it’s not about me,” Haaland said in her Senate confirmation hearing last month. “Rather, I hope this nomination will be an inspiration for Americans, moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us.
Haaland’s confirmation also marks a drastic change from the way former President Donald Trump’s administration treated the nation’s tribes.
“The Trump administration did more to undermine the relationship between the federal government and the sovereign tribes than many have in decades, from desecrating sacred burial sites to building a border wall to neglecting the desperate situation of Native tribes during the pandemic. Shame on them,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said ahead of Haaland’s vote. “In elevating Rep. Haaland to lead the Department of Interior, we reset the relationship between the federal government and tribal nations to one of cooperation, mutual respect and trust.”
Haaland takes the reins of Interior as the nation reckons with environmental injustice and the worsening climate and biodiversity crises. The Biden administration has vowed aggressive action to combat environmental threats, set a goal of conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 and committed to giving tribes “a greater role in the care and management of public lands that are of cultural significance to Tribal Nations.”
A second-term congresswoman and one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress in 2018, Haaland has a record of environmental stewardship and of working with Republicans on legislation. She served as a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, chaired its subcommittee with oversight of the Interior Department, and co-chaired the Congressional Native American Caucus. In 2019, she introduced 13 bills that had bipartisan groups of co-sponsors, which was more than any other House freshman. And she maintains a 98% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters.
Hundreds of diverse conservation, intertribal and progressive organizations endorsed her for the position.
Yet Haaland’s nomination proved among President Joe Biden’s most contentious, with Republicans attacking her as a “radical” and “extreme” threat to fossil fuel industry jobs. At her confirmation hearing, GOP opponents asked nothing about her vision for Indian Country. Instead they painted her as an anti-energy ideologue and inundated her with questions about her personal views on fossil fuel pipelines, as well as oil and gas drilling on federal lands, prompting Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) to note that it seemed her nomination had become “a proxy fight about the future of fossil fuels.”
The Republican line of questioning showed “how little they care about Native peoples and tribal governments and how much allegiance they have to an industry [with] a long history of harming our community,” Crystal Echo Hawk, the founder and executive director of Native-led advocacy group IllumiNative and an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, told HuffPost after the confirmation hearing.
At one point, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) lectured Haaland about the importance of science and asked if under her watch the department would be “guided by a prejudice against fossil fuels” or by science. The irony, of course, is that the Trump administration, of which Cassidy was a fierce ally, spent the last four years prioritizing fossil fuel and other extraction above all else, at times sidelining science and data.
During the 2-day hearing, Haaland repeatedly corrected GOP senators’ false claims about the effects of Biden’s executive order temporarily pausing new oil and gas drilling on public lands, reminded them that it is Biden’s agenda she’s been tapped to help carry out and stressed that she would uphold the law.
“There’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come,” Haaland said. “I know how important oil and gas revenues are to critical services. But we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating, and our climate challenge must be addressed.”
During his own speech ahead of Monday’s vote, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) chuckled at Republicans’ assertions that Haaland would treat fossil fuels unfairly.
“We have lived through four years of a Trump administration with secretaries of the Interior who were out-and-out operatives of fossil fuels,” Whitehouse said. “The fossil fuel hand in the secretary glove was obvious. The idea that anything other than fossil fuel was treated fairly in the Trump administration is a preposterous notion.”
Haaland ultimately received fewer votes than both Trump-era interior secretaries.
Ryan Zinke, a former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL, was confirmed in 2017 by a 68-31 vote. After portraying himself as a champion of public lands and a conservationist in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt, he went on to prove himself a loyal industry ally, leading the Trump administration’s so-called “energy dominance” agenda and racking up nearly 20 federal investigations into his conduct and policy decisions. After Zinke’s scandal-plagued tenure ended with his resignation in January 2019, his deputy, David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, took over. Bernhardt was confirmed by a 56-41 vote after a confirmation hearing that featured protesters wearing bright green swamp creature masks.
The Interior Department is best known for managing 500 million acres of federal land ― including the 63 national parks ― and setting the policies that govern natural resource exploitation. But its responsibilities are extremely vast, including managing water resources across the West, reclaiming abandoned mine sites, and protecting and recovering endangered species. It’s also tasked with upholding the government’s trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations, overseeing both the Bureau of Indian Education, which funds and operates more than 180 tribal schools, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Now Native peoples will be part of shaping policies, not just advocating from the outside,” IllumiNative wrote in a post to Twitter.
Haaland steps into the department as the Biden administration works to reverse the industry-friendly policies of the previous administration. Those efforts include scrapping a legal opinion that gutted protections for migratory bird species and reviewing Trump’s rollback of national monuments, which is widely expected to end with Biden’s Interior Department restoring or even expanding the protected sites.
As part of its climate agenda, the department recently launched a comprehensive review of the federal oil and gas leasing program, which an administration official says is “not serving the American public well.” About one-quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuel extraction on federal lands, according to federal data, and the industry is sitting on more than 23 million acres of unused leases on public lands and waters.
Environmental groups joined intertribal organizations in celebrating Haaland’s confirmation. Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association, called it a “historic day for all of us who care for our public lands and waters.”
“As a descendant of the original guardians of our lands, she brings a unique perspective, unlike any interior secretary before her,” she said in a statement. “Better representing the makeup and values of our country will help ensure that everyone can see themselves reflected and feel welcomed in these important places.”