Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo tribal citizen and President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Interior Department, is on the brink of history. If confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first Native American cabinet secretary. Interior manages one-fifth of the nation’s land and vast supplies of natural resources, all taken from Native people, as well as the lion’s share of federal Indian policy. This makes Haaland’s appointment even more significant—not just symbolic, but a true restoration of power to a people who nearly lost everything.
Yet, despite this remarkable moment, the public is still largely unfamiliar with the woman representing New Mexico’s First Congressional District. A poll of over 1,100 likely voters fielded in late January by Data for Progress, the think tank where I work, found that about 50 percent of respondents had not heard of her. That meant many Americans would get to know Haaland through this week’s confirmation hearing. And Republicans wanted to make that introduction as painful as possible for her, Biden, and the Democratic Party. In an attempt to block Haaland’s nomination, conservatives on the Senate Committee on Energy threw a barrage of criticism and questions at her, trying to provoke the sort of charged exchange that Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity can turn into incendiary diatribes on Fox News.
But the hearings didn’t produce content for the right-wing outrage machine. I kept Fox News on in the background as I wrote, and I searched Twitter, YouTube, and the Fox News website for coverage of Haaland’s hearing, but found little on conservative media. With West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat widely considered the deciding vote, announcing his support for Haaland on Wednesday, the Republicans seem to have failed.
One likely reason for the GOP’s defeat: Most Republicans made fools of themselves as they tried to bait Haaland into an altercation.
Republican John Barasso of Wyoming, the senior Republican on the committee, set the tone for his party Tuesday by characterizing a Biden executive order that pauses new permits for oil and gas drilling and leasing on public lands as “taking a sledgehammer to Western states’ economies.” When that didn’t get a rise out of Haaland, he turned to her tweets, including a recent one that stated: “Republicans don’t believe science.” (For what it’s worth, Barasso said in 2014, “The climate is constantly changing. The role human activity plays is not known.”) On Wednesday, Barasso was jabbing his pointer finger into his desk and shouting at Haaland, accusing the second-term representative of plotting to replace the revenues raised from taxes on fossil fuels with taxes on marijuana. (Haaland has done no such thing—though it sounds like an interesting idea.)
When it was his turn, Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana asked Haaland if she would “be guided by a prejudice against fossil fuel.” Mike Lee of Utah expressed his dissatisfaction with the designation of Bears Ears as a national monument, asking Haaland if she thought it was “appropriate for people with connections to the land…to be involved in the national monument designation process?” Haaland’s Pueblo relatives are among the tribes that consider Bears Ears sacred and trace their connection to the land back more than 35 generations. The irony of the line of inquiry was, apparently, lost on Lee.
When Senator Steve Daines, the Montana Republican leading the crusade against Haaland, asked the secretary-designate why she cosponsored a bill protecting grizzly bears in perpetuity, Haaland’s matter-of-fact response went viral: “I imagine at the time I was caring about the bears.”
Like many Native people, I tuned in to watch the hearing, live-tweeting with the hashtag #DebForInterior. On Tuesday, after Daines and the Republicans slunk back to their offices without a made-for-TV clip, I started using another hashtag: #BearsForDeb. I even created a new account, @Bears4Deb, to meme in support of Haaland and to have a little Internet fun at the expense of the GOP. Its first tweet: “#BearsForDeb because Deb is for the bears!!”
Jokes aside, there is poetic justice that Fox News will not introduce Haaland to the public. As Native people, we’ve had outsiders malign our story time and time again. But with Haaland headed toward a Senate confirmation, the story of the woman who broke so many barriers will instead be defined by us.
And that definition is deeply loving. Many of us have taken to calling Haaland “Auntie Deb,” because in Indian Country we often bestow that familial word on respected women who care for us like family. And Haaland reminds Natives of those aunties because of her visits to her grandmother at the Laguna Pueblo village of Mesita, her pride in tradition, her prior struggles to keep a roof over her head, her generosity and kindness of spirit, her poise in the face of malice, her improbable rise, her love for family, her willingness to fight for us, and so much more. When she wins, our people win. And we’ve been waiting a long time for this one.
After each Republican on the committee tried and failed to get the best of her, Haaland responded with grace, repeating that she looked forward to working with the flustered senators. And I suspect she meant it. In the 116th Congress, she introduced the most bills with bipartisan support of all House freshmen. Because, of course, her confirmation and Indigenous empowerment won’t come at the expense of others. In fact, just the opposite: Her tenure will finally mark the inclusion of everyone—including and especially the erased and forgotten First Peoples of this land.