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‘A moment long in the waiting’: Inland NW tribal leaders hail Haaland’s selection to lead Interior Department

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., Native American Caucus co-chair, joined at right by Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, speaks March 5 to reporters about the 2020 Census on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.  (J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., Native American Caucus co-chair, joined at right by Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, speaks March 5 to reporters about the 2020 Census on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – Tribal leaders from the Inland Northwest cheered reports on Thursday that President-elect Joe Biden had picked Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior, a historic move that could make the congresswoman from New Mexico the first Native American to head a cabinet agency.

If confirmed by the Senate, the first-term Democratic representative would take the helm of a department that oversees 20% of the nation’s land and includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. Multiple news outlets reported her selection Thursday after a public campaign by Indigenous and environmental groups for Biden to make the pick.

“I am excited at the possibility of the first Native American secretary of the interior,” said Gary Aitken Jr., chairman of the Kootenai Tribe. “I think she’s extremely capable and a wonderful choice for Indian Country as well as America.”

Haaland told The Spokesman-Review in October that Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would make tribal nations a greater priority than they have been under the Trump administration.

“Right now, so many of our tribal communities are suffering from lack of health care, lack of infrastructure, they don’t have broadband connectivity, and a lot of these disparities have been highlighted by the pandemic,” Haaland said. “I believe very strongly that a Joe Biden and Kamala Harris administration will be committed to upholding the U.S. trust responsibility to Indian tribes.”

Brian Gunn, a member of the Colville Tribes and the tribes’ federal lobbyist, said the choice of Haaland could mean the Bureau of Indian Affairs will get a fairer share of resources alongside the “land-and-critter agencies” like the National Parks Service that have wielded more influence in past administrations.

“Historically, they have struggled within the department, vis-a-vis those other agencies, to get adequate funding given how broad their mission is,” Gunn said. “I would hope, if she’s confirmed as the first Native secretary of the interior, that we could see that change in this next administration and hopefully have Indian Affairs have more power and clout.”

Gunn said Haaland’s experience with wildfires in her home state could help tribes in the Inland Northwest get resources from the department to deal with the aftermath of devastating fires.

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, became one of the first two Native women elected to Congress in 2018. She previously headed the New Mexico Democratic Party.

Chief James Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, congratulated Haaland in a statement and applauded Biden for the selection.

“The nomination of our nation’s first Native American cabinet member is a moment long in the waiting and especially important to Indian Country,” Allan said. “The Department of the Interior administers the United States’ trust responsibility to tribes, a duty performed not long ago by the Department of War. We now have one of our own leading the administration of Native programs and policies, a major step in the right direction.”

The Spokane Tribal Business Council hailed the move and said it marked an opportunity for Indigenous people to have a seat at the table for important federal decisions.

“We are delighted and excited to finally see a Native American woman appointed to this very important position,” the council said in a statement. “We believe it is a crucial time for the first Native American to serve in the president’s cabinet, so we can begin to shift focus back to caring for future generations and returning to a value system that honors Mother Earth.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Central Washington Republican who has worked with Haaland on legislation to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, said he had talked with her in recent days and invited her to meet with the Western Caucus, a group of lawmakers who represent mostly rural areas Newhouse was elected to lead in November.

“It’s historic that she is the first Native American to be named to a cabinet position,” Newhouse said. “That’s pretty cool stuff. I’m glad to have a good working relationship with her, because the Department of Interior deals with a lot of issues that are very important to the state of Washington.”

John Robison, natural resources director at the nonprofit Idaho Conservation League, said he expects the Interior Department under Haaland to weigh the environmental and climate impacts of its decisions – and how they in turn affect people – more heavily than past administrations.

“I think the problem of environmental justice is going to be hopefully front and center now, how many disaffected communities have had to bear the brunt of pollution,” Robison said. “Haaland is going to bring an incredibly important perspective that will really resonate with folks out west that haven’t had their voices heard as much … in the management of public lands.”

To be confirmed to the position, Haaland will need to receive a majority of votes in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, whose members include Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Jim Risch, R-Idaho.

Despite some in the GOP signaling they may oppose Biden’s cabinet picks, Gunn said the committee is likely to confirm Haaland, in part because the committee’s Republican chairwoman, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, represents a large Native constituency.

Haaland seemed to be an unlikely choice after Biden previously picked two other House Democrats to join his administration, chipping away at the party’s dangerously slim majority in the lower chamber.

If she is confirmed, the party would hold just 219 seats, barely more than the 218 needed for a majority, until special elections could be held to replace the departing Democrats.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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