In the political mediation process for staffing the next Biden government, one of the main requests of the progressive wing was the appointment of New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior. In the U.S. government, the position does not correspond to the Ministry of the Interior (for example, it has no authority over security and immigration), but designates the department responsible for the management of federal lands corresponding to about one-fifth of the national territory.
Thus, the department also has jurisdiction, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), over the populations from whom those lands have been taken. And Haaland, whose nomination was confirmed on Friday by Biden, now becomes the first Native American who will hold this post.
The Department of the Interior is much more than what it might seem—more than a simple state bureaucracy. The BIA, established at the height of the “Indian Wars,” has historically been the body which administered reservations and subjugated Native peoples and the long trail of injustices to which they have been subjected, disguised as federal grants.
The department also administers protected territories and national parks, protects endangered flora and fauna and issues mining and oil exploitation licenses for federal and offshore territories, i.e. for the commercial exploitation of resources, many of which are located on protected territories and reserves.
All this gives the department a symbolic weight directly connected to the historical arc of the country, to the conquest of the frontier and to the capitalist exploitation of the resources taken over invoking “manifest destiny.” Which also makes this position the one perhaps most directly connected to some of the original disputes. It is no coincidence that the ministers who have held this position have often found themselves at the center of political controversy. Under Reagan, for example, Secretary James Watt was at the forefront of the systematic deconstruction of environmental protections established in previous decades, pushed forward by the reactionary and “business interest” wave.
Trump has tried to complete that work, assigning the post to Ryan Zinke, a former Navy seal, speculator and oilman who has opened access to hunters and drillers, deconstructing national parks, such as the Escalante Staircase in Utah, with its ancestral Hopi settlements, and finally the Arctic nature reserve, decreed as the new frontier of the oil fields that lie underneath it.
For all these reasons—for the exploitation of resources, such as uranium mined on Navajo reserves in Arizona, and recently the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline on Sioux lands—the Department of the Interior has always been the department that most directly expresses some of the nation’s fundamental issues, linked to the continental conquest and the historical injustices connected to it.
Now, the person in charge of it will be a member of the Pueblo tribe. Haaland grew up in Mesita, near Albuquerque, in a pueblo, the ancient tribal hamlets that are among the oldest and most unique places on the North American continent. The “Pueblo Indians” are agricultural and sedentary populations, unlike their nomadic Apache neighbors, descendants of the Anasazi and violently subjugated by the Spanish conquest as early as the 1600s, then later victims of the same ethnic cleansing to which the natives were subjected.
It is a history that only underscores the symbolic importance of the appointment of Haaland, who, for the first time, will bring to the ministry the cultural baggage of the “defeated” and will be able to directly influence the process of elaboration and historical rectification that remains crucial and unfinished process of the national story, and a necessary act of reparation if the U.S. will want to move forward in the reconciliation so abruptly interrupted by the supremacist nationalism of Donald Trump.
And it is an important signal, perhaps, for what the Biden administration promises to do best: weld together issues of social and economic justice under the rubric of environmental reform.