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Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), walks down the House steps after a vote in the Capitol on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Climate Action, Indigenous Rights Groups Among Those Championing Deb Haaland as Interior Secretary

"It's time that Indigenous people have authority over stolen land."

Julia Conley

The national women's rights organization UltraViolet on Wednesday became the latest group to call on President-elect Joe Biden to appoint Rep. Deb Haaland as secretary of the interior, highlighting the importance of nominating a progressive Indigenous leader to oversee 500 million acres of public land and repair "the historic harms forced on Native communities throughout American history," including the stealing of land.

Haaland is a backer of the Green New Deal, a fierce proponent of keeping fossil fuels in the ground and fighting for a clean energy economy, and has been a vocal defender of tribal nations "who are battling the fossil fuel industry in their backyards."

"Appointing Rep. Haaland would be more than just historic, but a sign of a new path forward for Tribal Nations and indigenous communities across the United States regarding the trajectory and priorities of our government. Her perspective would help the United States cut carbon emissions that we are contributing to the global climate change crisis and curb our dependence on fossil fuels."
—Bridgett Todd, UltraViolet

The New Mexico Democrat was elected to the U.S. House in 2018 and, as vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, has overseen hearings on installing zero-emission infrastructure in the national park system; the harm caused by removing National Forest roadless protections; and resource studies by the Interior Department on public lands.

As co-founder Bill McKibben wrote in The Guardian on Thursday, Haaland also introduced the 30 by 30 Act, which "sets a national goal of conserving at least 30% of the land and 30% of the ocean within the United States by 2030."

"Appointing Rep. Haaland would be more than just historic, but a sign of a new path forward for Tribal Nations and indigenous communities across the United States regarding the trajectory and priorities of our government," said Bridgett Todd, communications director for UltraViolet. "Her perspective would help the United States cut carbon emissions that we are contributing to the global climate change crisis and curb our dependence on fossil fuels... Her championship of public land conservation is one example among many of her tireless work to protect and maintain America's national parks, forests, and natural resources."

If appointed as head of the Interior Department—which oversees the Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education—Haaland would be the first Indigenous leader to serve in the role. Last month, more than 120 advocacy groups and Indigenous tribal leaders voiced their support for Haaland's nomination.

"The Bureau of Indian Affairs still has significant impact upon the 574 recognized Indian tribes, and in setting policy impacting upon all enrolled tribal members including the Indian Health Service," wrote the supporters, including the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Gwich'in Steering Committee, and the Water Protector Legal Collective. "In addition, the Department of Interior is responsible for defending tribal sovereignty, ensuring that the legal trust responsibility of the United States toward Indian nations is upheld, and that Indian land oversight is conducted in a responsible way. Rep. Haaland has intimate knowledge of all of this."

McKibben wrote that an Indigenous person serving at the helm of the Interior Department would be "a remarkable plot twist in the American story," particularly after the past four years in which President Donald Trump has waged repeated attacks on public lands, including the shrinking of two national monuments to allow for fossil fuel extraction.

"A gesture can't repair much of the damage that's been done, but it can serve as a constant reminder of the debt still to be repaid," wrote McKibben. "There's never been a Native American cabinet member. For most of our history, sadly, it would have been an outlandish idea; now it feels absolutely necessary."

Despite Haaland's history of fighting to preserve the lands that the Interior Department oversees, according to the HuffPost, Biden advisors said this week that the congresswoman "is not qualified" and pushed the potential nomination of  Michael Connor, who is a member of the Taos Pueblo tribe and served as a deputy interior secretary in the Obama administration before joining international law firm WilmerHale. Leaders of Connor's own tribe are among the Indigenous leaders who back Haaland's nomination.

On its official Facebook page last month, the Sunrise Movement shared five reasons Biden must select Haaland as his Interior Secretary, including:

  • The need to repair the federal government's "legacy of attempting to exterminate Native Peoples from this country...In rebuilding and strengthening nation to nation relationships, it is imperative that a Native representative be in this role to guide the administration.
  • The Department of the Interior (DOI) oversees one-fifth of the land in the United States—all of which is stolen land.
  • The need to reverse the chronic underfunding of the Bureau of Indian Education.
  • The need to repair the damage the Trump administration has done to the country's natural resources by rushing to secure drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other public lands, impacting native tribes who have ties to those regions. 
  • The need to fulfill the DOI's responsibility "for honoring the federal government's commitments to tribal nations," which it has "failed to do...over the years."

"On Day One Deb Haaland could stop the drilling of oil on federal land, including stopping the drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," the Sunrise Movement wrote. "It's time that Indigenous people have authority over stolen land."

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