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Campaign is on to make Haaland the first Native American Cabinet member

Rep. Deb Haaland

A campaign to pressure President-elect Joe Biden to put Rep. Deb Haaland in charge of the Interior Department – and make her the first American Indian Cabinet secretary in U.S. history – is gaining ground in Washington.

The effort, which involves lawmakers, tribal leaders and some environmentalists, also is making headway with Biden transition officials, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Haaland, who was just elected to her second term in the House, is a top contender for the post of Interior secretary along with retiring Sen. Tom Udall, the people said.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, just took himself out of the running, throwing his support behind Haaland for the post in a letter Monday to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Biden officials have been urged not to give serious consideration to Sen. Martin Heinrich, in part because he supported the confirmation of current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last year, two of the people said.

If chosen and confirmed for the role, Haaland, 59, would be the first Native American to serve as any Cabinet secretary. As a member of the Laguna Pueblo she became one of the first two Native American women in the House of Representatives last year, along with Sharice Davids of Kansas.

“If selected, I would be honored to serve and support the Biden-Harris climate agenda, as well as help repair the government to government relationship with tribes that the Trump administration has ruined as the first Native American Cabinet secretary in our nation’s history,” Haaland said in an emailed statement.

Conservation proponent

Haaland also highlighted the Interior Department’s role working on climate change and preserving public lands. She has advocated greater federal government consultation with tribes, conservation of federal lands and federal-tribal collaboration to prevent violent crimes, partly in her role leading the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands.

Activists are appealing to Biden’s campaign commitment to elevate the voices of Indigenous people, emphasizing that Native Americans are guardians of land often overlooked in major environmental decisions. That role was vividly on display during months of protests of the Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2016.

“The entire world saw Indigenous people trying to do the basic thing of protecting the land and the water they considered a sacred site for their ceremonies,” said Jane Kleeb, an anti-pipeline activist and the chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party who has encouraged Haaland’s selection. “The world changed in that moment, and I think that has impacted Democratic leaders.”

Where previous Interior secretaries have “given lip service to tribes on consultation in honoring treaty and sovereign rights,” Haaland would bring a commitment to change course, Kleeb said. “It would be a transformative moment – not just in symbolism, but in the way that she views how we should be protecting that land.”

Biden transition spokesmen did not respond to a request for comment.

The Interior Department runs the national park system and oversees grazing, recreation, energy development and other activities on about a fifth of the U.S. Through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the department works directly with 578 federally recognized Native American tribes. The Interior Department also holds trust title to more than 56 million acres of land for tribal nations.

Native American support

“It is long past time that a Native American person serve as secretary of the interior,” and Haaland is “ready” for the role, more than 130 leaders of sovereign tribal nations said in a letter to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. “Representative Haaland has championed the environment, helped lead efforts to address climate change and worked to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between our tribes and the United States – all issues within the Department of the Interior’s responsibilities.”

Sen. Tom Udall

Both Haaland and Udall have fought Trump administration efforts to expand oil and gas development on public lands in the West. They also joined with Grijalva and 49 other lawmakers in a legal brief opposing lower limits on methane leaks from oil wells on federal lands.

Their views neatly align with Biden’s climate and environmental ambitions, but other factors could be at play in Biden’s Interior secretary selection. That includes the makeup of the rest of his Cabinet and whether his choices would be confirmed by the narrowly divided Senate. While Udall could benefit from his relationships with Senate colleagues, Haaland would not have the same advantage.

Udall, who served two terms in the Senate after a decade in the House and a stint as New Mexico’s attorney general, has championed a plan to protect at least 30% of U.S. land and ocean by 2030. He also has argued for enlisting federal lands in the fight against climate change, using the territory as uninterrupted habitat for vulnerable species and a repository for carbon dioxide, instead of as a source of fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases they generate.

In an emailed statement, Udall praised both Haaland and Heinrich: “Like so many New Mexicans, I’m excited about the vision of the incoming Biden-Harris administration and I am honored to be considered for an opportunity to continue my public service.”

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