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Haaland to tackle weighty tasks at Interior

The committee hearings are done, Senate confirmation is in the books and a swearing-in has taken place. On March 16, Deb Haaland was confirmed by a vote of 51- to-40 to lead the Department of Interior. She was sworn in March 18 – her first day on the job as secretary.

Naturally, Indian Country celebrated the historic significance of the moment. Haaland is the first Native American to lead the agency and the first to hold a cabinet position. In 2018 she also made history as one of the first two Native American women elected to the House.

“The impact of Native American representation at the top of a federal agency that so directly affects our daily lives cannot be overstated,” National Congress of American Indians president Fawn Sharp said in a statement soon after the Senate vote. “The relationship between Tribal Nations and the federal government has been fractured for far too long. Having an ally like Secretary Haaland who is not only deeply qualified but is from our communities has the potential to transform the government-to-government relationship and will be vital in advancing Native American issues for generations.”

Haaland now has the huge task of leading a 60,000-employee agency that is charged with overseeing 500 million acres of federal lands, federal waters off the U.S. coastline, dams and reservoirs across the west and the protection of thousands of endangered species.

Deb Haaland speaks during her confirmation hearing. (Photo via C-SPAN)

The job also entails upholding trust and treaty responsibilities for the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes and millions of Native Americans. The Interior Department oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education – two agencies that position Haaland to address the needs of Native Americans – a group that has faced a variety of injustices over generations and that has been impacted disproportionately by the pandemic.

Priorities in focus

Some of the first steps Haaland is expected to take include a halt on new oil drilling, reinstating wildlife conservation rules that were rolled back by the Trump administration and a fast moving expansion of wind and solar power on public lands and waters.

Haaland is at the center of the Biden administration’s climate agenda. She has said she will be a “fierce advocate” for public lands and will fight climate change. Haaland was one of the first co-sponsors of the Green New Deal, which seeks to address climate change through job creation and reducing economic inequality, among other measures.

“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland wrote on Twitter before her Senate vote. “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.”

The 35th-generation New Mexican, a Democrat from Laguna Pueblo, has also been placed at the center of Biden’s push for racial equity.

During her confirmation hearing Haaland acknowledged that the Interior Department had been used in the past as a way to oppress tribal communities.

“This moment is profound when we consider the fact that a former secretary of the Interior once proclaimed his goal to, quote, civilize or exterminate us,” Haaland said.

She was quoting an Interior Department report from 1851, under then-Secretary Alexander H.H. Stuart.

“I’m a living testament to the failure of that horrific ideology,” Haaland said.

Haaland has promised to help repair the legacy of broken treaties and abuses committed by the federal government toward tribes. Many tribes have their land held in trust by the federal government, but leaders in Indian Country have said the U.S. has abdicated its responsibility to protect the land, wildlife and other culturally important tribal assets.

With Haaland at the helm comes a hope that many issues will be corrected.

Tribal consultations have begun across the country – an Obama administration rule that was reinstated by President Biden. The consultations concern lands development and right of way issues for projects like pipelines, including other topics.

Tribal leaders say the previous administration often did not seek consultation on issues like opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the Keystone Pipeline and an 85% reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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