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Deb Haaland confirmed as first Native American cabinet secretary in historic Senate vote

Haaland's confirmation bears great hope for Indian Country, which has a long history with the Interior Department that has more often been bad than good.

Deb Haaland confirmed as first Native American cabinet secretary in historic Senate vote
Cover Image Source: Rep. Debra Haaland (D-NM) testifies during her confirmation hearing at the U.S. Capitol on February 24, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Leigh Vogel-Pool/Getty Images)

Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico made history this week when the Senate voted to confirm her as President Joe Biden's Interior secretary. The historic move on Monday, where she was confirmed on a 51-40 vote, makes Haaland the first Native American Cabinet secretary. According to The New York Times, only four Republicans — Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, and Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — voted for her after several of their party members calling Haaland's views on public land use and fossil fuels extreme.


On the other hand, Haaland's confirmation bears great hope for Indian Country, which has a long history with the Interior Department that has more often been bad than good. "To Indian Country, Haaland is viewed as everybody's 'auntie.' Having her in leadership gives Native America a seat at the policymaking table. For New Mexico, she has been a productive member of Congress, reelected in 2020 with over 58% of the vote," Dr. Traci Morris — Executive Director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University — explained to The Conversation. "And while a few Western senators have called her views 'radical,' I believe that Native issues are American issues. If Haaland is confirmed as interior secretary, many observers expect her to provide bold leadership for an agency that oversees what is arguably the heart of America: its land."


Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo who identifies herself as a 35th-generation New Mexican, is well aware of the significance of her new role. "A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior," she wrote on Twitter before the vote. "Growing up in my mother's Pueblo household made me fierce. I'll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land. I am honored and ready to serve." She previously made history in 2018 when she was elected as one of the two first female Native Americans in Congress.


With a history of fighting against oil and gas exploration, Haaland is expected to play a crucial role in following through on President Biden's vows to move the federal government away from fossil fuels and restore environmental protections on public lands after former President Trump's attempts to expand drilling, mining, and logging. While this has been a driving force of Republican opposition to her confirmation, she attempted to strike a delicate balance on energy and environmental policy during her confirmation hearings.


"There's no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come," Haaland said at the hearings, reports CNN, before adding that "our climate challenge must be addressed," and that "the Department has a role in harnessing the clean energy potential of our public lands to create jobs and new economic opportunities." She also declined to give her personal opinions to questions from Republican senators on several occasions, stressing instead that she would work to carry out the Biden administration's agenda.


When asked by GOP Sen. Steve Daines of Montana at one point if she "supports a ban on fracking and no new pipelines," Haaland replied: "President Biden does not support a ban on fracking is my understanding." Upon being pressed again on the question, she said: "If I am confirmed as secretary, I would be serving at the pleasure of the President and it would be his agenda that I would move forward."


Contrary to Republican opposition, Democrats have lauded and praised Haaland as the ideal candidate for the job. "I'm confident that she is the leader that we need at Interior to take on the important work of restoring our landscapes, opening up new outdoor recreation opportunities for all Americans and putting our public lands to work in confronting the climate crisis," Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, said in support of her nomination in a Senate floor speech. Addressing GOP criticism, Heinrich added that Haaland's policy views "fall well within the mainstream and fairly represent many of her constituents, I would say the vast majority of her constituents. I am eager for the Senate to finally take up Congresswoman Haaland's confirmation so that she can get to work protecting our natural heritage for future generations."

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