The Senate on Monday confirmed New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as interior secretary, making her the first Native American to lead a Cabinet department and the first to lead the federal agency that has wielded influence over the nation’s tribes for more than nearly two centuries. Haaland was confirmed by a 51-40 vote.
Democrats and tribal groups hailed Haaland’s confirmation as historic, saying her selection means that Indigenous people will, for the first time, see a Native American lead the powerful department where decisions on relations with the nearly 600 federally recognized tribes are made. The Interior also oversees a host of other issues, including energy development on public lands and waters, national parks and endangered species.
“Rep. Haaland’s confirmation represents a gigantic step forward in creating a government that represents the full richness and diversity of this country,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Native Americans for far too long have been neglected at the Cabinet-level and in so many other places,” Schumer said.
Haaland’s nomination has been closely watched by tribal communities across the country, with some virtual parties drawing hundreds of people to watch her two-day confirmation hearing last month. “The nation needs her leadership and vision to help lead our response to climate change, to steward our lands and cultural resources and to ensure that across the federal government, the United States lives up to its trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations and our citizens,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s oldest and largest tribal organization.
“The confirmation of Representative Deb Haaland to be the Secretary of the Department of the Interior is historic for New Mexico and Indigenous people everywhere. I am proud to call Deb my friend. She has the compassion and the integrity to lead the Department. Secretary Haaland will not only bring an Indigenous perspective and voice to the Interior and President Biden’s Cabinet, but will also bring a commitment to engage with all stakeholders,” said New Mexico Indian Affairs Department Cabinet Secretary Lynn Trujillo.
Not everyone was celebrating. Some Republican senators have criticized Haaland’s views on oil drilling and other energy development as “radical” and extreme, citing her opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline and her support for the Green New Deal, a sweeping, if mostly aspirational, policy to address climate change and income inequality.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Haaland’s “extreme views” and support of “catastrophic legislation” such as the Green New Deal would make her confirmation as interior secretary disastrous, harming America’s energy supply and economy.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, (R-Alaska), said she had “some real misgivings” about Haaland because of her views on oil drilling and other energy issues, but said Native Alaskans, an important constituency in her rural state, had urged her to back Haaland. “Quite honestly, we need [Haaland] to be a success,” Murkowski said.
Sen. Tina Smith, (D-Minn.) had harsh words for Haaland’s critics. “I’m calling out the GOP’s disgraceful treatment of Deb Haaland and other smart, qualified—and outspoken—women of color nominated by the Biden administration,” she said. “Our country is better with Deb Haaland confirmed to serve as secretary of the interior.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said he was disappointed at the rhetoric used by Barrasso and other Republicans. Heinrich, who lives in Haaland’s district, said she “always has an open door and an open mind” to a range of views.
Haaland will resign her congressional seat in New Mexico on Tuesday and could be sworn in as early as Wednesday.