The US Senate has confirmed Representative Deb Haaland as secretary of the interior, making the New Mexico politician the first Indigenous person to head a cabinet agency in the history of the United States.
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, will handle oversight of more than 202,342,821 hectares (500 million acres) of US land and the federal government’s relations with 574 recognised Indigenous nations. Native American and environmentalist groups campaigned for Haaland’s confirmation.
“Native people, advocates, and allies from around the country have been working tirelessly to support and uplift [Haaland] and we couldn’t be more proud of her,” Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative, an Indigenous-led group that aims to increase visibility for Native nations, told Al Jazeera.
Echo Hawk called Haaland, one of the first Indigenous women elected to the US Congress in 2018, “a powerhouse and history maker who will fight to ensure Native issues and voices are heard”.
Haaland has long opposed fracking and even joined protests against pipelines and wrote in a 2017 post on the web platform Medium that “[f]racking is a danger to the air we breathe and water we drink”, and the “auctioning off of our land for fracking and drilling serves only to drive profits to the few”.
The New Mexico legislator was confirmed by a margin of 51 to 40. The vote came following a grilling by Republican senators in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month over her views on natural gas and petroleum mining on public lands.
Deb Haaland defended Native Americans and her views on renewable energy during her Cabinet confirmation hearing. pic.twitter.com/CCo4oarfSw
— AJ+ (@ajplus) February 26, 2021
Haaland has also been a supporter of the Green New Deal, a progressive-led plan to shift the US economy from fossil fuels to renewable energy. She has the support of the Sunrise Movement, an environmentalist organisation popular with the progressive left.
Indigenous people have been pushed to the side throughout America's history, and while Deb Haaland's appointment as Secretary of the Interior cannot undo that damage, it is a massive step towards halting and reversing that trend.
— Sunrise Movement 🌅 (@sunrisemvmt) December 17, 2020
Haaland told Republicans, who challenged her on her anti-fracking views during the confirmation hearing, that she will be putting forward President Joe Biden’s agenda, not her own.
As interior secretary, Haaland will also oversee the federally-recognised Indigenous reservations.
Indigenous people in the US have made renewed pushes in recent years to stop their sacred sites from being exploited.
The Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, headed by the Lakota people in 2016, were likened to the civil rights movement.
Haaland was present at the camps demonstrators used, providing food.
More recently, Oglala Lakota activists have pushed to have Mount Rushmore, a monument to four US presidents carved into a sacred mountain that represents the ancestors of the Oglala and other Indigenous groups, returned to the tribe.
Former President Donald Trump made a controversial visit to the South Dakota monument last year to celebrate the US’s July 4 Independence Day – which usually includes firework displays and is important for the state’s economy – without consulting Indigenous leaders.
The visit was heralded by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Trump ally.
During the February confirmation hearing, Republican Senator Roger Marshall said: “I think it’s great for America to celebrate our independence and what a great place to do that,” and said Noem invited Haaland and Biden to attend.
“If the pandemic is over and we’re able to travel, I’ve never been to Mount Rushmore, and so I appreciate that,” Haaland replied.
Haaland previously told MSNBC ahead of July 4 that tribes were not included in discussions regarding the external borders of their reservations and “just because sacred sites are not included in their external boundaries” does not mean that tribes do not hold these sites sacred.
Indigenous “history is American history”, Haaland said. “We have to respect it.”
.@RepDebHaaland’s nomination goes to the full Senate for a vote on Monday. Several senators need to hear that her confirmation is important to their constituents, & that we are watching this vote. Click the link to urge them to support #DebForInterior. https://t.co/Cv27FxlO3r pic.twitter.com/Il8iD20kt4
— IllumiNative (@_IllumiNatives) March 11, 2021
Echo Hawk told Al Jazeera Haaland’s appointment gives Indigenous communities a “renewed sense of hope and optimism for the future of this country”.
The Illuminative leader hopes Haaland “will continue to inspire more Native people to run for office from tribal and local, to Congress and beyond”.