FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Deb Haaland stood with fellow tribal members protesting an oil pipeline outside a reservation in North Dakota, advocated for protecting cultural landmarks in her home state of New Mexico and pointedly told government witnesses in a hearing about blasting sacred Native American sites near the Mexican border: “I don’t know how you can sleep at night.”
Native Americans have reason to believe the two-term congresswoman will push forward on long-simmering issues in Indian Country if she’s confirmed as secretary of the Interior Department, which has broad oversight of tribal affairs and energy development. Unlike most people who have held the job, she won’t need to be schooled on the history of Native Americans or tribal sovereignty. She already knows.
The Laguna Pueblo woman often draws on her own experience as a single mother and the teachings of her ancestors as a reminder that action the U.S. takes today on climate change, the environment and sacred sites will impact generations to come.
Haaland, 60, would be the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency. A confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. And while her support of the Green New Deal has put her in the crosshairs of some Republicans, Haaland is expected to have enough votes to secure the post.
President Joe Biden has committed to regular and meaningful consultation with tribal nations on federal policies and projects that affect them. The Interior Department has scheduled talks with tribes in March on health, the economy, racial justice and the environment. Biden also vowed to restore the White House Tribal Nations Conference, an annual gathering of tribal leaders that occurred during the Obama administration.
Native Americans see Haaland’s nomination as the best chance to ask for more – to move from consultation to consent and to put more land into the hands of tribal nations either outright or through stewardship agreements.
“When tribal governments that are sovereign nations say ‘no,’ it needs to mean something,” said Judith LeBlanc, a citizen of the Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma and director of the Native Organizers Alliance, a national group that works for social and policy changes. “It needs to be part of the process of deciding our energy needs, the process of deciding anything that will affect land, water, air or our social and civil rights.”
The concept of free and prior informed consent is in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and outlined in the Green New Deal. Former presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro also included it in their platforms, but it hasn’t gained widespread traction in the U.S.
Supporters say it would be a way to ensure sovereign tribal nations are part of the decision-making, rather than notified of projects already in the works that impact them – on or off their land – or not informed at all.
Had it been in place, advocates say, oil never would have flowed through the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, the Trump administration would not have downsized Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah, and the area around Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico would be permanently protected from oil and gas drilling – all in line with Haaland’s stances.
Yet Larry Roberts, an expert in federal Indian law at Arizona State University who served under President Barack Obama in the Interior Department, said it’s not that easy.
“Some of the things tribes want will require legislation, and I think that’s going to be a higher hurdle,” said Roberts, a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. “Deb Haaland can’t do it alone.”
Oglala Sioux President Kevin Killer understands that.
“Time goes fast,” he said. “We have a unique opportunity” now with Democrats controlling the House and Senate.
Ira Vandever, who is Navajo from the largely Navajo community of Haystack in New Mexico, said Indian Country is going to keep a close watch on Haaland to ensure she’s held accountable in acting on behalf of Indigenous people and “our Mother Earth.” The ultimate goal, he said, is to create a way for tribes to have full autonomy over their land. “We don’t want sympathy and patronizing,” he said.
Some Republicans have vowed to oppose Haaland’s nomination, saying her “radical ideas” don’t fit in with a rural way of life, particularly in the West. They cited her support for the Green New Deal and Biden’s recent moratorium on oil and gas drilling on federal lands – which doesn’t apply to tribal lands – and her opposition to fracking and the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
LeBlanc called the opposition “fear mongering of the worst kind” and said Haaland is more than qualified for the job. Native American tribes overwhelmingly support the nomination.
Requests made to Haaland’s congressional office and the Interior Department to interview her were declined.
The Interior Department has broad authority in Indian Country, including managing federal relations with tribes, making decisions on federal recognition of tribes, administering mineral rights on tribal land, educating some Native Americans and providing police forces. The department also runs national parks, oversees wildlife and endangered species, and approves oil and gas drilling and mining.
Ryan Flynn, director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said climate change likely will play a prominent role in policy decisions under Biden. Even so, demand for oil and gas is likely to continue for decades, he said.
“How can we be leaders when it comes to responsible production?” he said.
That debate has played out for decades at Chaco Canyon. The national monument sits amid a checkerboard of Navajo Nation, private and public land. Individual Navajos who were given allotments of land benefit from oil and gas development, while pueblo tribes elsewhere in New Mexico have sought a permanent ban on extraction.
“In those situations where there’s disagreement, it’s just a harder issue to solve,” Roberts said. “But it doesn’t mean that someone should come in with a heavy hand and say, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ Tribal consultation has to be a continuing dialogue and meaningful to be effective.”
As a freshman lawmaker, Haaland led a subcommittee that oversees national forests, parks and public land. In those hearings and others, she points out that tribes haven’t had much voice in determining what happens on their ancestral lands, and the U.S. has failed to uphold promises made through treaties and other acts.
Tribal nations have been pushing for the federal government to return land that was home to Indigenous people long before it became the U.S. Sometimes referred to as reparations, it’s part of a growing movement known as Land Back.
High on the list: Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Many Native Americans consider the monument featuring the faces of four U.S. presidents a symbol of white supremacy and a desecration to the area known to Lakota people as Paha Sapa, “the heart of everything that is.”
Char Miller, an environmental historian at Pomona College in California, said the U.S. has a moral responsibility to at least co-manage public land with tribes that have been stewards of it for millennia, building off agreements that already exist with fisheries and in national forests.
Some Native Americans want Mount Rushmore’s sculptures removed, while others want a share in the site’s economic benefits.
For Nick Tilsen, returning the area and other public lands to Indigenous people would be a way for Biden to show he’s serious about racial justice.
“We want to see action,” said Tilsen, an Oglala Lakota citizen and president of the activist organization NDN collective. “In this time of racial justice and reckoning, we want to make sure Indigenous people aren’t left out of that narrative.”