Deb Haaland’s confirmation is about more than identity politics

On March 15, U.S. Representative Debra Haaland (D-New Mexico) was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior. The appointment makes Haaland the first ever Native American person to hold this position, and the first ever Native American cabinet member.  The confirmation vote was largely along party lines, with only four Republican senators voting in favor: Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). 

Opposition to Halland’s nomination was particularly vocal from senators from western states and from those who found her opposition to oil and gas exploration on federal lands ”extreme.” The votes of both Alaska senators is therefore notable, because Alaska is a state with both significant oil and gas industry interests and a high indigenous population–18%, according to a 2014 census.  Haaland is a proponent of the Green New Deal, and her appointment is considered vital to President Biden’s environmental agenda. She is expected to use her position as Interior Secretary to reverse Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s policies, which leased millions of acres of public land to oil and gas industries and massively rolled back protections in environmentally sensitive areas. For Murkowski and Sullivan, the wealthy and politically influential industrial interests in their state apparently took a back seat to those of their indigenous constituents. Native Americans have been loud and enthusiastic supporters of Haaland’s nomination.

While the confirmation of Secretary Haaland, a citizen of Laguna Pueblo and self-described 35th-generation New Mexican, is itself historic, the significance of this appointment goes well beyond the issue of racial representation.  The Interior Department of the U.S. government is the umbrella agency for the Bureau of Land Management, which determines, for example, mining, drilling and animal grazing rights on the vast stretches of federal land, especially in the western states.  But it is also the umbrella agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency charged with fulfilling the United States’s historical obligations to Native Americans.  The BIA is involved in myriad ways in the lives of tribally enrolled Indian and Native Alaskan people. In addition to overseeing Indian lands, it  manages special healthcare and education services, and implements federal laws and policies related to Indian lands and people. 

Though the BIA’s current mission is one of working in an advisory role with tribal governments to promote economic and social development and administer laws, its long history as one of the oldest US federal agencies reflects the country’s history of settler colonialism.  Founded in 1824 as an agency in the Department of War, the BIA oversaw treaties that dispossessed Native Americans from their lands, and residential schools that alienated native children from their families, languages, and traditional cultures. It has implemented policies that have been regarded as devastating to Indian communities and sovereignty, including the General Allotment Act of 1887, which broke up collectively owned native lands into private allotments, thereby allowing  tribal lands to fall into the hands of non-Indians, and introduced a tribal enrollment system that implemented a blood quantum accounting system for Indian identity.  It also oversaw the relocation and termination policies of the 1950s and 60s, which, in addition to ending federal recognition of some Indian nations, also actively encouraged Indians to move away from reservations.  

Current leadership of the BIA has been in the hands of native people. But Deb Haaland’s position at the head of the entire Interior Department, and as a member of Biden’s cabinet, brings a new level of native representation to the federal government.  In addition, Haaland’s position is at the crossroads of one of the most critically important issues to many Indian communities, namely that of land use and conservation.  The struggle between federal land and resource management and indigenous sovereignty and claims to a special relationship to the land  came to a dramatic crisis in 2016 in the protests led by citizens of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, when the US Army Corps of Engineers approved the construction of an oil pipeline across water resources and lands sacred to the Sioux. The protests galvanized global attention under the hashtag #NoDAPL.  This kind of activism by native peoples, environmentalists, and their allies will likely intensify in the future as new technologies and climate change open up yet more lands in North America for mining and resource extraction. At least for now, they have a newly powerful ally in Deb Haaland.

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