Deb Haaland helming the Interior Department would be a first step in healing the ‘horrible relationship’ between the federal government and Native Americans, activists say

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This April 3, 2019, file photo shows Rep. Deb Haaland, D-Albuquerque, one of the first Native American woman elected to Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
  • President-elect Joe Biden has officially selected Rep. Deb Haaland as his nominee to serve as Secretary of the Interior, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.
  • Haaland would the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet, and is poised to play a key role in repairing the historically fraught relationship between Native tribes and the federal government.
  • Two Native activists told Insider they are optimistic and hopeful about the selection.
  • “We all get very excited just thinking about the opportunity to really finally start to reset that relationship that the federal government has with tribes,” Crystal Echo Hawk, executive director of nonprofit IllumiNative told Insider.
  • Haaland, one of the first two Native women elected to Congress in 2018, has focused particularly on environmental and public lands issues and protecting Native lands from oil and gas drilling.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President-elect Joe Biden has officially tapped Rep. Deb Haaland as his nominee to serve as Secretary of the Interior, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.

Haaland, a first-term congresswoman representing New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico and, along with Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas, was one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress in 2018.

If confirmed, Haaland would the first-ever Native American to serve at the Cabinet level in a presidential administration. In addition to the historic and symbolic nature of her selection, Haaland would directly oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, and the bureau charged with managing financial assets Native Americans hold with the federal government.

That role would give her the power to play a key role in restoring trust and repairing the historically fraught and painful relationship between the federal government and the 574 federally-recognised Native American tribes, Native activists told Insider.

“The Department of the Interior is the agency really charged with holding that federal trust responsibility that the US government has with tribal nations here in the United States. And it’s been a horrible relationship. It’s been an abusive relationship. It’s one that has been wrought with fraud and corruption…with mismanagement of tribal funds and just very paternalistic, very unhealthy,” Crystal Echo Hawk, the executive director of nonprofit IllumiNative and a citizen of the Pawnee Nation, told Insider in early December.

Haaland recently told Insider’s Kayla Epstein that one of her top priorities as Interior Secretary would to be to improve the tribal consultation process, the procedure by which the federal governments seeks input from Native tribes on a wide array of environmental and other issues that directly impact them.

Haaland said the Trump administration has tossed that process “out the window” in pursuing development and resource extraction on public lands.

“We all get very excited just thinking about the opportunity to really finally start to reset that relationship that the federal government has with tribes, and having a Native person and a Native woman at the helm of that,” Echo Hawk said. “And it’s not going to happen overnight, but I think that, as a marker to reset that relationship, it’s fundamentally important.”

Haaland has won praise from Native advocacy organisations and environmental groups alike for her focus in Congress on maintaining public lands and protecting the environment that Native tribes rely on. Haaland is a member of the National Resources Committee and chairs the National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands subcommittee.

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“Representative Haaland is a public lands champion with experience protecting and managing America’s most majestic landmarks,” Phil Francis, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said in a Thursday statement. “She has been at the forefront crafting thoughtful solutions to combating the climate crisis that continues to impact our national parks.”

As Interior Secretary, she would manage the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and US Fish and Wild Service. Those three departments are crucial to protecting the US’ natural resources from climate change and what Haaland and many other groups view as harmful oil drilling and fracking activities on public lands.

“To me, it just makes sense that that role as Secretary of the Interior, overseeing our public lands, will belong to a Native person given how we honour Mother Earth,” Allie Young, a Diné activist, Navajo Nation citizen, and co-founder of Protect the Sacred, told Insider. “I know we would be in good hands with her, especially as a Native woman, because of that special relationship in our matrilineal societies and seeing our Earth as Mother.”

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A number of Haaland’s colleagues from both sides of the aisle, including progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska, have touted her candidacy for the job and lauded her experience on the ground as an advocate for Native tribes in New Mexico as well as her ability to compromise.

Even while poised to preside over a much narrower House majority, Speaker Nancy Pelosi officially gave her blessing for Biden to take a third member out of the House, Haaland, to serve in his administration.

Rep. Cedric Richmond of Lousiana will be joining the White House as a senior advisor, and Biden has also tapped Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio as his nominee to run the Department of Housing & Urban Development.