Cheered on virtually by thousands of Native Americans in her home state of New Mexico as well as across the U.S., Rep. Deb Haaland was confirmed on March 15 as secretary of the Interior Department. In the role, Haaland will lead the management of a vast swath of federal public land including forests, lakes and national parks, as well as the oil and mineral reserves that lie beneath them.
It’s an appropriate role for the women whose legacy as an American Indian can be traced back more than 35 generations. It’s also historic, making her the first Native American to ever hold a Cabinet secretary position and only the third woman to ever lead the department of the interior. The agency is responsible for conserving and managing the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage for the benefit and enjoyment of all Americans.
Haaland was confirmed with a vote of 51-to-40 with four Republicans crossing party lines to vote in her favor.
According to Darryl Fears of The Washington Post, “many Republicans decried Haaland’s support for the Green New Deal, which calls for dramatically lowering fossil-fuel emissions, and her opposition to an expansion of oil and gas drilling on public land, saying the positions disqualified her to lead an agency that has traditionally promoted those ventures.”
Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota called the Republicans’ attack “ferocious,” claiming it was both sexist and racist in many ways. She pointed out that many of the same senators who rallied against Haaland posed little opposition to Tom Vilsack’s nomination for Secretary of Agriculture, even though the two possess many similar views.
“I just find it difficult to take these Republican attacks at face value,” Smith said. “Once again, a woman, and a woman of color, is being held to a different standard and we need to call it [out].”
In addition to her Senate supporters, Fears said that hundreds of Native Alaskan women “submitted an open letter in the Anchorage Daily News in support of Haaland.”
Recognizing the significance of her appointment when she was originally nominated for the position back in December 2020, Haaland tweeted, “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.”
Among her goals as head of the Interior Department, Fears reported that Haaland plans to “focus on restoring land that has been scarred by the excavation of resources such as coal and uranium.” She also intends to work at reining in pollution and addressing the rising temperatures of America’s lakes and rivers, which have been deadly to fish populations. Haaland has also set a personal goal to help address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women — a problem that occurs on some reservations at 10 times the national average.