President-elect Joe Biden intends to appoint New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, according to two people familiar with the decision, a historic choice that would make her the first Native American to head the powerful federal agency that exercised the influence on the nation’s tribe for generations.
Tribal leaders and activists across the country, along with many Democratic figures, hailed Haaland’s selection after urging Biden for weeks to choose her. They supported his candidacy even when concern that the Democrats could risk a majority in the House if Haaland gave up his seat in Congress seemed to threaten his appointment.
With the appointment of Haaland, indigenous people will see a Native American at the table where the highest decisions are made for the first time in their lives – and so will everyone else, said OJ Semans, a voting activist for Rosebud Sioux who was in Georgia Thursday to help. get the native vote out for two ballots in the Senate. “It made people aware that Indians still exist,” he said.
Haaland, 60, is a member of Laguna Pueblo and, as he likes to say, a 35th generation resident of New Mexico. The role of secretary of the interior would put her at the head of an agency that exerts enormous influence not only on the nearly 600 federally recognized tribes, but also on much of the vast public lands, waterways, wildlife, parks. national and mineral wealth of the nation.
After news of Biden’s decision went public, Haaland tweeted that “growing up in my mother’s Pueblo family has made me ferocious.
“I will be fierce for all of us, our planet and all of our protected earth,” he said.
His selection was confirmed by two people familiar with the decision who were not allowed to talk about it publicly and spoke to the Associated Press Thursday on condition of anonymity.
The choice breaks a 245-year record of non-native officials, mostly male, serving as a senior federal official in American Indian affairs. The federal government often worked to expropriate Native Americans from their land and, until recently, to assimilate them to white culture.
“You have to understand – you are completing the interior circle,” said Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and a Haaland champion for the job. “For years, his legacy has been the deprivation of civil rights of the natives of this country, displacement, cultural genocide.”
With Haaland’s appointment, “this is a huge message in itself,” Grijalva said.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called it “a truly historic and unprecedented day for all indigenous peoples.”
“I am SO ELEGANT,” tweeted the head of the Sunrise Movement of Progressive Democrats, Varshini Prakash. “This will be the first time that an indigenous – and moreover a tough climate advocate – will hold a presidential government position. Congratulations to @JoeBiden for writing the story. ″
Activists to get the vote believe their efforts and the native vote helped overturn Arizona especially for Biden and secure the presidency.
“There is a sense that something is changing,” said Ashley Nicole McCray, a member of the Assentee Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma and an indigenous environmental coalition. “Finally, we have reached this point where indigenous sentiment is no longer silenced.”
But Biden’s choice could further exhaust, at least temporarily, the narrow Democratic majority he maintains in the House. Biden has already selected several House lawmakers, including Louisiana Representative Cedric Richmond and Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge, to serve in his administration.
Some members of Biden’s transition team had expressed concern that he would dive further into the already small majority of the Democratic House for another high-level post in the administration. But Biden decided that the anti-barrier aspect of her appointment and her experience as a vice president of the natural resources committee made her the right choice for the time being.
The president-elect has systematically filled seats in his cabinet, adding North Carolina environmental officer Michael Regan as his candidate to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, according to two people familiar with the selection process. Earlier this week, Biden introduced former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg as his transportation secretary, and plans to make former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm his energy secretary.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear Wednesday that Biden had her blessing on choosing Haaland, saying she would be an “excellent choice” as internal secretary. South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House and a close ally of Biden, also backed Haaland for the job.
Haaland, one of the first two Native American women in the house, said she could see the difference her position made to ordinary Native Americans who came to her for business in front of the federal government.
“They felt comfortable throwing themselves into the problems they wanted,” Haaland told the AP in an interview prior to his appointment. They would say, for example, “Oh, we don’t have to explain tribal sovereignty to you,” meaning the constitutionally guaranteed status of tribes as independent nations.
Haaland previously served as the head of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, as a tribal administrator, and as an administrator for an organization that provides services for adults with developmental disabilities.
Born to a veteran Navy father and Navy veteran mother, Haaland describes herself as a single mother who sometimes had to rely on food stamps. She says she is still paying off student loans after college and law school for herself and college for her daughter.
New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, who is retiring after 22 years in Congress and was initially considered the front runner for the Secretary of the Interior, congratulated Haaland on his selection, calling it “momentous and well deserved.”
Previously, the highest-ranking administrative officer known to have Native American heritage was Charles Curtis, who served as Herbert Hoover’s vice president and whose mother was a quarter Kaw tribe.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani in Wilmington, Del., And Matthew Daly in Washington, contributed to this report.