December 29. By Michael Sales. The Department of the Interior of the United States was created in 1849. Its second director, Alexander H. H. Stuart of Virginia, began serving in that capacity in 1850. In 1851, Stuart said that American Indians were “encompassed by an unbroken chain of civilization. The only alternatives left [for us] are, to civilize or exterminate them.” Variations of this policy were in place between the United States and its tribal nations for well over 100 years. America’s First Nations have the unenviable status of frequently being the poorest of the poor in the United States, and they have been extremely hard hit by COVID.
President-elect Biden has announced that he will nominate Deb Haaland to serve as United States Secretary of the Interior. If confirmed, she will become the first Native American to run the Department of the Interior, and the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.
Haaland became the U.S. Representative from New Mexico’s 1st congressional district in 2019. She and Sharice Davids were the first two Native American women ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo people and a 35th-generation New Mexican. Haaland supports the implementation of the Green New Deal.
Haaland was born in 1960 in Winslow, Arizona. Her mother, a Native American, served in the Navy. Her father, Major J. D. “Dutch” Haaland, a Norwegian-American, was an officer in the United States Marine Corps. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
After graduating from high school, Haaland worked at a local bakery. At 28, she enrolled at the University of New Mexico, where she earned a BA in English. Haaland started a salsa company to support herself and her daughter. At times during this period, she needed food stamps and did not earn enough money to afford housing, relying on friends for shelter. She earned her J.D. in Indian law from the University of New Mexico School of Law. Haaland became the first Chairwoman of the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors, overseeing business operations for the second largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico. During her 2018 campaign for Congress, Haaland still had student loans from law school.
In the U.S. Congress she has served on a number of House committees including:
- Committee on Natural Resources (Vice Chair)
- Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States
- Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands (Chair)
- Committee on Oversight and Reform
- Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
Haaland’s selection was one of several by Biden acknowledging that certain populations have been disproportionately affected by toxic air and polluted land and making it clear that he intends to do something about it.
In traditional Pueblo culture, religion and life are inseparable. To be in harmony with all of nature is the Pueblo ideal and way of life. Haaland has demonstrated that this point of view is important to her by walking the talk as an environmental activist. For example, in 2016 she went to the Standing Rock Sioux’s reservation in North and South Dakota to join tribal leaders in opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, which manages billions held in trust by the U.S. government, are all part of the Department of the Interior. The department employs about 70,000 people in approximately 2,400 locations with offices across the United States, Puerto Rico, U.S. Territories, and Freely Associated States.
Interior manages roughly one-fifth of land in the United States, overseeing 75 million acres of wilderness, 422 national parks, national monuments and wildlife refuges. The department safeguards more than 1,000 endangered species, and manages massive water projects in the West that help sustain farmland and provide drinking water for major cities including Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Informed observers, such as National Park Foundation’s President and CEO, Will Shafroth, are enthusiastic about Haaland’s assumption of responsibilities at Interior:
“As demonstrated by her leadership role as [the] chair of the House Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, Representative Haaland recognizes the value and importance of the more than 400 natural, cultural, and historical parks….The National Park Foundation looks forward to its continued partnership with the Department of the Interior and National Park Service in the forthcoming administration.”
But Haaland will face opposition. She has pledged to transform the department from a champion of fossil fuel development into a promoter of renewable energy and policies to mitigate climate change, and the contrast with the Trump years probably couldn’t be starker. The Trump administration removed protections from sacred tribal sites in Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and has allowed oil drillers into Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to the caribou that Native Alaskans hunt for food.
The fossil fuel industry is already deeply concerned about the way Interior will be run under her tenure. For example, a statement by the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association notes that drilling on federal land generates $800 million annually for New Mexico’s government will likely be amplified exponentially across America: “We hope Rep. Haaland will employ a balanced approach that considers the needs of all who depend on public lands, including the thousands of men and women and families whose livelihoods depend on access to public lands for resource development.”
Climate activists can take heart in her commitment to the Earth. Upon her nomination, Haaland stated: “A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”