By Barbara Sprunt
As President-elect Joe Biden continues to assemble his advisers and Cabinet, one name being floated could add another historic first to his administration.
Politico reported Thursday that dozens of House Democrats sent a letter to Biden’s transition team endorsing New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland for interior secretary.
Haaland, 59, is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna. In 2018, she and Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., became the first two Native American women elected to Congress.
Haaland currently serves as the vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. If tapped for the Interior Department job, she would break another barrier as the first Native American Cabinet secretary.
“First of all, it would mean a lot to Indian Country,” Haaland told NPR’s Rachel Martin, when asked about the potential nomination. “When Sharice [Davids] and I got sworn in, everybody was so happy. It means a lot to a group of people who have been here since time immemorial to know that they’re truly being represented. I think it would really change the way people see our federal government.”
She added: “Being able to listen, being able to move issues forward, bringing people to the table — I think that would make a huge difference.”
Haaland reflected on her groundbreaking election alongside Davids two years ago.
“We are here for the people and all of the heartache and all of the horrible federal eras of federal Indian policy that happened through the centuries,” she said. “We’re here to try to make a little dent in making those things right and moving us into a new era in our country where we say everyone’s voice matters.”
On his campaign website detailing plans for tribal nations, Biden pledged to “ensure tribes have a seat at the table at the highest levels of the federal government and a voice throughout the government.”
The Indigenous Environmental Network, along with 25 organizations, sent a letter to Biden’s transition team on Nov. 14 urging him to select Haaland for the job.
“As historical firsts have occurred in this election, there is an opportunity for another one by nominating a qualified and dynamic Indigenous woman to head the Department of Interior,” the letter reads. “Our belief is that Representative Haaland will help facilitate the Biden/Harris vision for dealing with climate change, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in Indian Country, ensuring an effective economic just recovery plan for Tribes and communities, overseeing the protection of public lands and fulfilling all treaty and statutory obligations.”
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When Deb Haaland was born in 1960, Native Americans did not have the right to vote. Members of Native nations didn’t have that right at the start of the country and, with some exceptions, didn’t get it for generations. In 2018, New Mexicans elected Haaland to Congress. And also, Sharice Davids was elected from Kansas. They became the first Native women to serve in Congress. And now they’ve been reelected. Both joined Rachel Martin.
SHARICE DAVIDS: We, Deb Haaland and I – it’s weird. I want to call you Deb.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
DAVIDS: I’m just going to say Deb while we’re talking. We had the opportunity to educate our colleagues on the particular issues that tribal people and Native communities face when it comes to access to the ballot box. And it’s one of the things that I think about when I think about what a difference it makes to have different voices in the room with different lived experiences than what we’ve seen for so long.
MARTIN: What were those conversations like? What were the kinds of concrete examples you were trying to share with your colleagues in those rooms?
DAVIDS: So first of all, it’s very, very complex having the nature of the tribal government-federal government relationship. Oftentimes what will happen is legislation will say, and Indian tribes or and on reservations or something to that effect, where it’s really just, let’s go ahead and include Native communities in this but without the recognition of how complex that relationship is. So if the federal government says the states have the right to do something, decide who votes, decide the manner of voting, that has the chance of impacting tribal sovereignty.
DEB HAALAND: One of the things that Sharice raises is the issue of tribal consultation. Something that Sharice and I have both pushed on is to make sure that tribes are consulted before decisions are being made. President-elect Biden, in his tribal policy platform, tribal consultation is one of his main issues. And he’s already pledged to start the tribal nations summits once again.
MARTIN: Congresswoman Haaland, your name has been floated as a possible secretary of the interior under the Biden administration. You have said that you would take the job if offered the position. What would that job allow you to do as a public servant that you’re not already able to do as a member of the U.S. Congress?
HAALAND: I mean, first of all, it would mean a lot to Indian country, right? When Sharice and I got sworn in, everybody was so happy, right? I mean, it means a lot to a group of people who have been here since time immemorial to know that they’re truly being represented. And so I think it would really change the way people see our federal government.
Take, for example, the tribal consultation piece. Of course, I’m the vice chair of the Natural Resources Committee. And we had an oversight hearing about this administration and how it was working to undermine tribes with respect to the border wall. And we had the chairman of the Tohono O’odham tribe as a witness who testified that he got a text message two hours ahead of time saying that they were going to be blasting apart this area of their reservation. And as it turned out, it was the area of a sacred site. And so I think just being able to listen, being able to move issues forward, bringing people to the table, I think that would make a huge difference.
MARTIN: Could I close by asking you two, if you don’t mind, to just talk about the first time that the two of you were able to get in a room after you had won in 2018 and just look at each other and acknowledge for yourselves the historic nature of your elections?
DAVIDS: I would love to just share – I hope I can make it through it. When I won my primary, Deb called. And I missed the call because I think I was in a press conference. And when I listen to the voicemail, hearing Deb’s voice telling me how much it means that both of us even could be serving in Congress together was one of the most, like, impactful messages that I could get. And I don’t mean voicemail message. I mean, like, knowing that the two of us have the opportunity to serve together as the first two Native women. And I think the reason for that is, like, I cannot imagine, like, being in this place where no one like us has ever been here before without Deb Haaland.
MARTIN: Congresswoman Haaland, do you remember making that phone call?
HAALAND: I do because I followed Sharice’s campaign from the time she got in until she won. But what I’ll say is we got to be in Statuary Hall when they dedicated – or unveiled this beautiful statue of Chief Standing Bear. And Sharice – when you’re in moments like that, Sharice always looks at you and says, can you believe we get to do this?
HAALAND: Can you believe that we get to be here? You know, she’ll say that. And I’m just like, I know, right? We realize that we’re not here for us. We are here for the people. And all of the heartache and all of the, you know, the horrible eras of federal Indian policy that happened through the centuries, we’re here to try to make a little dent in making those things right and moving us into a new era in our country where we say everyone’s voice matters.
MARTIN: Representative Deb Haaland and Representative Sharice Davids. Thanks to both of you.
DAVIDS: Thank you so much for having us.
HAALAND: Thank you, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRAY FOR SOUND’S “GRAYSON”)
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