President-elect Joe Biden will nominate Rep. Deb Haaland to be secretary of the Interior. If confirmed, she will be the first Native American to serve in that position.
The Department of the Interior is home to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Haaland, 59, D-N.M., is an enrolled citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna Native American tribe and serves on the House Natural Resources Committee. She was one of the first two Native American women elected to the United States Congress, the other being Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan.
Biden has vowed to appoint a diverse Cabinet, noting on several occasions that he wants his administration to look like the United States. Haaland's appointment is the latest example of that effort.
His Cabinet selections thus far have included several historic appointments, including Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American, as the first Latino head of the Department of Homeland Security; Janet Yellen as the first woman to head the Treasury; and Pete Buttigieg for Transportation secretary, the first openly gay Cabinet secretary, if confirmed by the Senate.
The selection was confirmed to USA TODAY by a source familiar with the decision who was not authorized to speak publicly.
In a statement posted to Twitter, Haaland acknowledged the historic nature of her pick, saying "a voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior."
"I am honored and ready to serve."
On Nov. 23, Haaland told NPR that if she was nominated for the Interior role, it “would mean a lot to Indian country.”
“It means a lot to a group of people who have been here since time immemorial to know that they're truly being represented,” she told NPR. “I think it would really change the way people see our federal government."
Under the Obama administration, several Native Americans served in top positions in the agency, such as assistant secretary of Indian Affairs; director of Indian Health Service; and as deputy secretary of the Interior. But the 171-year-old Cabinet-level department has never had a Native American at its helm.
On the campaign trail last year, Biden did not explicitly promise to make history by appointing a Native American to the position. But in a questionnaire he submitted as part of a Native American presidential forum in January, the former vice president pledged to diversify his Cabinet.
"As president, I will nominate and appoint people who look like the country they serve, including Native Americans," he wrote in the seven-page questionnaire provided to USA TODAY by Four Directions, an advocacy group that co-sponsored the forum. "That will be true across my Administration, but I also recognize the special importance of appointing Native Americans to play critical roles in upholding the government-to-government relationship."
As part of the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs manages and administers 55 million acres of estates held in trust by the United States for Native American tribes.
The United States government has a complicated and violent history with Native American tribes. Over centuries, the U.S. government has broken dozens of treaties with tribes, pushed Indigenous people off of their ancestral land and for years forced Native American children into boarding schools that worked to strip them of their native identity.
Prior to being elected to the House of Representatives, Haaland served as the chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico. Before that, she ran for lieutenant governor of the state in 2014.
Haaland’s appointment is a win for liberals, who had the congresswoman at the top of the list of who Biden should appoint for Interior secretary.
In addition, dozens of Democrats in the House of Representatives in mid-November sent a letter to Biden’s transition team, urging the president-elect to select Haaland, according to Politico. The Indigenous Environmental Network, along with 25 organizations, also sent a letter to Biden’s team in support of Haaland.
With his selection of Haaland, Biden will again eat into the party's majority in the House of Representatives.
“I'm certainly concerned by the slimming of the majority,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Dec. 9 on a media call. “I have indicated to the administration very early on that I wanted them to be very careful in terms of the members that they appointed from the Congress given the closeness of our majority.”
Haaland's district, New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, has been represented by Democrats since 2009.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw her support behind Haaland in a statement Dec. 16, saying, "Congresswoman Deb Haaland is one of the most respected and one of the best Members of Congress I have served with. I am so proud that, as one of the first Native American women to have served in Congress, she serves as Chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. Congresswoman Haaland knows the territory, and if she is the President-elect’s choice for Interior Secretary, then he will have made an excellent choice.”
Liberals praised Biden for selecting the congresswoman.
"It can't be understated what a big deal it will be to have @RepDebHaaland as Sec Interior," Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of Sunrise Movement, wrote in a tweet. "Haaland has been a supporter of a just economy powered by clean energy for her entire career. Now she'll have the power & position needed to further our fight for climate justice."
Haaland's colleagues on Capitol Hill were quick to praise the decision, even those across the aisle.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said in a statement that he applauds Biden's decision and said that Haaland is "a valued colleague and good friend." Cole is co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, alongside Haaland.
"She is also a fierce and reliable advocate for Native Americans," Cole said. "We not only share a special bond through our tribal heritage and extensive knowledge of tribal history in the United States, but we have a shared understanding that tribal issues are non-partisan issues. This has enabled us to accomplish a great deal together. Once she is confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, I look forward to continuing to work with her to advance federal policies for the good of Indian Country.”
Haaland has been a strong advocate for voting rights protections and more resources for communities of color particularly during the pandemic. COVID-19 had had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, particularly Native Americans.
She called for a rapid deployment of resources and supplies to Indian Country to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. She said some communities there lack running water and face challenges with sanitation.
“Every single community in this country deserves access to the tools to fight this coronavirus,’’ Haaland told USA TODAY in an interview in April. “Communities of color are at a higher risk of being ignored and not getting what they need…We just have ignored or neglected certain communities of color along the way and it's come to this.”
Haaland has also pushed to expand broadband internet service to Native Americans, especially with virtual learning. “There's a lot of students around the entire country who are able to connect with their teachers and that's not so for a lot of rural communities, which includes Native communities,’’ she said