January 18, 2021

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A Native American in charge of Interior? | Editorials

President-elect Joe Biden is facing pressure within his own party to make his Cabinet as diverse as possible.

That’s a lot of bases to cover in 15 Cabinet positions. Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, Indian Americans, Arab Americans and Pacific Islanders have all been mentioned as potential nominees to head up various agencies.

But one position — and candidate — stands out. No Native American has ever served as a Cabinet secretary. No Cabinet position plays a bigger role in Native American affairs than the Department of Interior.

A campaign to put U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., in charge of Interior is gaining steam. The effort, which involves lawmakers, tribal leaders and some environmentalists, received a boost last month when Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, took himself out of the running to support Haaland’s nomination.

We find the possibility historically fascinating, as we’ll explain.

Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo people and represents the Albuquerque metro area. She became one of the first two Native American women in the U.S. House of Representatives last year and her freshman term was full of experiences with direct relevance to Interior’s mission.

The Interior Department runs the national park system and oversees grazing, recreation, energy development and other activities on about a fifth of the U.S. Through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the department works directly with 578 federally recognized Native American tribes. The Interior Department also holds trust title to more than 56 million acres of land for tribal nations.

Haaland led the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands. She hails from a state where oil and gas development on public lands plays an important role in the economy. She was also an aggressive lawmaker.

She “led, co-sponsored and whipped influential and bipartisan votes for more bills than any other freshman,” according to Politico. “In an era of partisan gridlock, she has seen three of her acts signed into law: one strengthening tribal self-government, another incubating Native American small business and a third coordinating cross-agency actions to address the grisly phenomenon of Indigenous women turning up missing and murdered.”

If selected, Haaland told Bloomberg News in an email that she would be “honored” to support the Biden-Harris climate agenda “as well as help repair the government-to-government relationship with tribes.”

Why is this potential nomination so historically interesting? A little background: The rationale for the federal government’s title to lands once occupied by Native Americans on this continent was established in one of the country’s founding Supreme Court decisions, Johnson v. M’Intosh.

The decision lays out the government’s claim to the land and establishes the basis for why the lands were not “stolen” from Native Americans. Yes, it reflects a very Eurocentric view, but it set the law that remains controlling today.

That’s why putting a Native American in charge — on behalf of the federal government — of the very lands stripped from her ancestors by that same federal government looms as a transformative moment. No nominee should be appointed or confirmed solely as a matter of poetic justice, but we’re long past a time when a Native American should be given the opportunity to run Interior.

This is not an endorsement. We don’t yet know enough about Haaland’s background, experience or philosophy. But it’s one of those developments that we should all pause to notice.

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