When Joe Biden tapped Deb Haaland to serve as the nation’s 54th secretary of the interior, she accepted the designation as no nominee before her. “A voice like mine has never been a cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” declared the representative from New Mexico. “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.”
Haaland’s promise to bring that fierce commitment to advocating for environmental justice and a new relationship between the US government and Indigenous peoples does not sit well with Republican senators who are in the service of the fossil fuel industry. But this is precisely why Biden desperately needs her in his administration. While the new president gets high marks for filling top positions with experienced and competent people, and Haaland is surely that, this administration has to provide bold leadership for the planet and the people. With a track record of activism that extends across decades and that embraces multiple struggles for economic, social, and racial justice in New Mexico and in Washington, D.C., Haaland has a capacity to engage and excite the millions of Americans that the Biden administration and the congressional Democrats will need to advance what must be a bold agenda for transforming debates about the climate crisis, the preservation of public lands, and respect for Native communities.
The Sunrise Movement was spot on when it launched a #DebForInterior campaign for Haaland’s confirmation, explaining, “A visionary Secretary of the Interior has enormous latitude to crack down on giveaways to fossil fuel corporations, like permits to drill for oil on public lands and in public waters. With a progressive leader at the helm, we can make real progress.” The group argues that Haaland can “usher in a new era.” That’s true when it comes to struggles for climate justice and Indigenous authority over stolen land. But it’s also true in a broader sense for an administration that must be more than a well-intended if cautiously technocratic alternative to the Trump administration that preceded it. This is a moment that cries out for bold leadership on behalf of climate justice and all the other issues that Haaland has embraced as a proud member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
If she is confirmed and given the freedom and flexibility to lead as she is capable of doing, Haaland—to a greater extent than any of Biden’s other cabinet nominees—can frame a progressive vision for this administration and this country. That’s what makes the fight to confirm this nomination—which Republican senators such as Montana’s Steve Daines have promised to block—so critical. That fight is clearly winnable, now that a reluctant Democrat, West Virginia Senator Joe Machin, has said he’ll vote to confirm Haaland. But the president and Senate Democrats cannot let up their push to secure a confirmation vote for a cabinet secretary who holds out what former Progressive Caucus chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sees as a “mystical opportunity” for Biden and the country. “The agency that was set up eons ago, Interior, to basically disenfranchise and colonize Indigenous America, for Deb to be secretary,” says Grijalva, “America will have its first indigenous person in a Cabinet but more historic, in Interior, in the agency that was set up for that purpose. Maybe I’m naive but there are certain political scripts that are almost written for you.”
Much of the attention to Haaland’s nomination prior to this week’s contentious Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing, focused on the “firsts” that her confirmation would achieve. A 35th generation New Mexican who is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, and also has Jemez Pueblo heritage, she would be the first Native American cabinet secretary in the 232-year history of the American presidency. Specifically, Haaland would be the first Native American secretary of the cabinet department that oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service and that manages 55 million surface acres and 57 million acres of subsurface-minerals estates held in trust by the United States for Indigenous peoples with a mission to “enhance the quality of life, to promote economic opportunity, and to carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes, and Alaska Natives.”
The argument for her confirmation on representation grounds is powerful in and of itself, especially as Biden promises a cabinet that looks like America. “I can tell you from experience that having people who come from a Native background matters,” says Ada Deer, a member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin who served as assistant secretary of the Interior and headed the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1993 to 1997. When Representative Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat who is a member of the H0-Chunk Nation, and Melanie Benjamin, the cochair of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a cofounder of Women Empowering Women For Indian Nations, joined leaders of Native women’s organizations in calling on Biden to name Haaland, they wrote:
Unlike most Interior Secretaries over the past 170 years, she is neither a former Governor or Senator of a western state nor is she a corporate executive, who have all had a stranglehold on the Secretary of Interior position since 1849. She does not come from a family of means or power, she has lived in poverty, and is the only candidate for this position who has the experience of living on an Indian reservation as an indigenous woman whose daily life is impacted by the Secretary of Interior.
While the majority of cabinet nominees in our nation’s history tend to come from more privileged backgrounds and have climbed higher on the political leadership ladder, Rep. Haaland had to hike to the top of the mountain to reach the first rung of the ladder. She has actually walked the path of those she will have jurisdiction over.
If Haaland is confirmed, she has the potential to restore the Department of the Interior to the stature it had when Stuart Udall led it in the 1960s and, to an even greater extent, when Harold Ickes led it throughout Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. But what matters is that she can do so with a vision that builds on the progress that society has made.
This is what Haaland spoke to when she delivered a visionary address to last summer’s Democratic National Convention. “The promise of this country is older than our Constitution. Over 500 years ago, thousands of Indian tribes were vibrant democratic societies with rich cultures and traditions and communities that had sustained them for millennia on lands they loved and respected,” she explained. She recalled in the speech: “My people survived centuries of slavery, genocide, and brutal assimilation policies. But throughout our past, tribal nations have fought for and helped build this country.”
Haaland held out a promise when she spoke. “Whether your ancestors have been here for hundreds of years or you’re a new citizen,” she said, “know this, whether we vote and how we vote will determine if our nation’s promise of social, racial, and environmental justice will outlast us.”
That is the essential calculus of our time. To make it work, Biden and Senate Democrats must fight—fiercely—and break down every barrier to Deb Haaland’s confirmation.