President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Representative Deb Haaland, a first-term congressperson from New Mexico, to be his secretary of the interior. If confirmed by the Senate, Haaland will be the first Native American to run the Department of the Interior and the first to serve on a presidential cabinet. She’ll oversee agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, in addition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In a statement, the National Wildlife Federation says that choosing Haaland for the position is “a clear sign the new administration is deeply committed to tackling America’s wildlife and climate crises and authentically engaging with Native American Tribes and Indigenous communities.” Biden says he has commited to “a cabinet that looks like America.”
Haaland, 60, is the daughter of two military veterans. Her mother, a Native American, served in the U.S. Navy. Her father, a Norwegian American, was a Marine and received a Silver Star for courageous service in the Vietnam War. Haaland is an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo. She describes herself as a 35th generation New Mexican.
In 1994, Haaland graduated from the University of New Mexico at the age of 34, then gave birth to her daughter just four days later. A single mother, she made ends meet by starting her own salsa company and says that at times she relied on food stamps and the generosity of friends for housing. In 2006, she earned a Juris Doctor degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law and went on to serve as tribal administrator for the San Felipe Pueblo.
Haaland began her political career as a volunteer, working to increase voter participation in Native American communities. She volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2012, then unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2014. In 2015, she became chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party.
In 2016, Haaland joined the Dakota Access Pipeline protests on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. There she cooked green chili and tortillas from the back of her car to feed fellow protestors. “There shouldn’t be penalties for protests, it’s our constitutional right,” she said at the time.
Haaland was elected to represent New Mexico’s First District, which encompasses Albuquerque and its surrounding areas, in 2018. She and Sharice Davids of Kansas were both elected that year, making them the first Native American women in Congress. Haaland serves as vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and is also chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands.
“Congresswoman Haaland knows the territory,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement, supporting Haaland’s nomination.
Haaland offers a stark contrast to the current secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt. Not only has President-elect Biden pledged to halt all new oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters, but Haaland’s support for First Amendment rights represents a welcome change from a DOI that dispatched its law-enforcement units to violently disperse anti-racism demonstrators in Washington, D.C., this summer. Haaland herself also takes advantage of outdoor recreation; she completed the Marine Corps Marathon just last year.
But it’s the change she promises to bring to Native American affairs that holds the most promise. President Trump’s time in office, aided by Secretaries Ryan Zinke and Bernhardt, involved a historic assault on Native American rights and heritage. In addition to forcing through the Dakota Access Pipeline, Trump’s administration struck protections from sacred tribal sites in Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, opened the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling (threatening food sources for the Gwich’in people), and reorganized the DOI in ways Haaland argues are intended to suppress the voice of tribes. The administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has also disproportionately impacted Indigenous communities.
Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, said in an email statement that Haaland’s nomination will help him “sleep better at night.” He also said: “I am confident Congresswoman Haaland will use the best science to restore our landscapes, open up new outdoor recreation opportunities for everyone, put our public lands to work in confronting the climate crisis, and help Indian Country recover and rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic. I am eager to support her confirmation so she can get to work protecting our natural heritage for future generations.”