President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Interior Department marked a historic victory for an alliance of progressives and Indigenous leaders who campaigned relentlessly to elevate one of their own to a powerful federal seat that oversees natural resources, public lands and Indian affairs.
A member of Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland will – if confirmed – become the first Native American Cabinet secretary. The New Mexico Democrat is also a favorite of the young, diverse progressive activists who vigorously lobbied both the Biden team and House Democratic leadership – who are holding on to a slim majority after the November elections – to select her over more familiar names with closer ties to the Democratic Party establishment.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland tweeted on Thursday night. “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land. I am honored and ready to serve.”
Haaland was reelected to her second term representing New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District in November. And though she never generated headlines like members of her allies in “The Squad,” Haaland’s fierce advocacy for climate justice policy and Indigenous rights has made her a champion of the new left.
Word of her selection – which had been rumored but had appeared to be in limbo over the last week – set off celebrations among a circle of dedicated progressives who kept close communications with Biden’s team even when some of their ideological allies warned against it.
“We see our moms, our aunties and ourselves in Deb – and now we’re putting our greatest hopes as a people in her leadership,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy for Data for Progress, one of Haaland’s top advocates. “After four years of fossil fuel executives and lobbyists opening up Native lands and sacred sites to industry, the next Secretary of Interior will be a Laguna Pueblo woman who went to Standing Rock in 2016 and cooked for the people.”
Before she ran for Congress in 2018, Haaland, a single mother, joined the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline project, which was charted to pass 1,200 miles from North Dakota to Illinois. The pipeline was routed under a reservoir near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, leading to legal challenges and, eventually, mass demonstrations and an encampment that brought together Indigenous and environmental activists from around the country.
Haaland, according to a 2019 account in the High Plains Reader, arrived at the camps from New Mexico and cooked green chili and tortillas for those around her.
“I felt like we really had hit on an environmental movement that was deep and meaningful,” Haaland told the publication. “It just seemed so amazing that so many tribes came together, because tribes came from everywhere to stand with the water protectors. It was significant that so many of us came together to protect water, our natural resources.”
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez celebrated the pick and applauded the incoming administration for fulfilling a promise.
“It is truly a historic and unprecedented day for all Indigenous people as Congresswoman Deb Haaland has been selected to head one of the largest federal agencies, which oversees the (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and (Bureau of Indian Education), at the highest level of the federal government,” he said. “I congratulate her and I also thank the Biden-Harris team for making a statement and keeping their word to place Native Americans in high-level Cabinet positions.”
Haaland endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts during the 2020 Democratic primary and, during the Biden transition team’s deliberations over the Cabinet pick, Warren expressed her support for the congresswoman directly to Biden, according to a source familiar with the push for Haaland’s nomination.
Warren on Thursday praised reports of Biden’s decision.
“Woo-hoo! Deb is an outstanding choice. She’ll be a terrific Secretary of the Interior—protecting public lands and natural resources, fighting climate change, and making history,” Warren tweeted.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York also applauded the pick, describing it as a watershed moment for an increasingly diverse progressive movement.
“This is a big deal. Historic appointment. A visionary Native woman in charge of federal lands. Unequivocally progressive. Green New Deal champion. Exquisitely experienced,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “@RepDebHaaland sister, you are going to do such a great job. I am so proud of you and the movement.”
Clearing the way for Biden to tap Haaland, whose father was a Marine awarded the Silver Star Medal for heroics in Vietnam and whose mother served in the Navy, was a tough slog for her supporters. With the House Democratic majority slimmed down, many on the left believed that she needed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s blessing before Biden would move.
It came on Wednesday.
“Congresswoman Haaland knows the territory, and if she is the President-elect’s choice for Interior Secretary, then he will have made an excellent choice,” the California Democrat said in a statement. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, joined her in backing Haaland.
During Haaland’s short time in Congress, she won over support from members of both parties, including GOP Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who praised her work as a vice chair on the House Committee on Natural Resources and described her as a “consensus builder.”
Haaland also served as the chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. In November, 50 House Democrats – across ideological lines – signed a letter touting her for the Cabinet job.
The Sunrise Movement, a leading climate activist group, moved to nudge aside another leading contender for the job, retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, whose father once ran the department.
Along with Justice Democrats, NDN Collective and Data for Progress, Sunrise praised Udall for his work but argued it was time for new faces.
“It would not be right for two Udalls to lead the Department of the Interior, the agency tasked with managing the nation’s public lands, natural resources and trust responsibilities to tribes, before a single Native American,” the groups wrote.”That’s not what the Democratic Party stands for, nor what you or your father have stood for in your tireless advocacy for strong Native representation at all levels of government.”
Udall congratulated Haaland in a statement on Thursday, touting her “lived experience” and backing her to reverse the policies of the past four years.
“She will undo the damage of the Trump administration, restore the department’s workforce and expertise, uphold our obligations to Native communities, and take the bold action needed to tackle the accelerating climate and nature crises,” Udall said.
On Thursday, Sunrise’s executive director and co-founder, Varshini Prakash, celebrated the pick.
“Thank you Joe Biden for listening to the unprecedented groundswell of support that united behind Deb Haaland,” she said, “there is no one better to lead the Department of the Interior.”