The appointment of Deb Haaland as secretary of the interior was ratified by the US Senate with a vote of 51-40. The New Mexico lawmaker will be the first Native American cabinet secretary (belonging to the Pueblo of Laguna with ancestral lands near Albuquerque) — the first time in a US administration. To quote the first article in the Navajo Times, an organ of the Diné nation: “Indian Country erupted in celebration at about 4:30 p.m. as news spread about Haaland’s confirmation.” And not for nothing.
As Holly Cook Macarro, Administrator of the American Indian Graduate Center, told the Washington Post: “Now on tribal issues we can be confident that we have not only a ‘friendly’ voice, but a voice that is ours.”
“I was moved,” added Crystal EchoHawk, director of IllumiNative, an organization that fights against stereotypes about Native Americans. “Now our children will know that anything is possible. On the news they will finally be able to see someone who looks like us.”
The widespread emotion in the archipelago of reserves that make up the Indian nation is more than justified. In the American legal system, the position of secretary of the interior does not correspond to that of Minister of the Interior (for example, the office does not have a mandate on security and immigration) but designates the department in charge of managing federal lands corresponding to about one-fifth of the national territory.
The ministry therefore also has jurisdiction, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, over the populations from whom those lands have been stolen. And Haaland, whose appointment by Biden was ratified by Congress on Monday, now becomes the first Native American to hold the office.
Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo nation commented: “This is a monumental day, unprecedented for the First People of this country. Words cannot express how overjoyed and proud we are to see one of our own confirmed to serve in this high-level position.”
The Interior Department is much more than what might seem like a simple state-owned bureaucracy. The BIA, for example, set up in the midst of the “Indian wars,” has historically been the body for overseeing the reservations and subjugated native populations and the long trail of injustices disguised as federal subsidies to which they have been subjected.
The ministry also oversees protected territories and national parks, protects at-risk fauna and flora and issues mining and oil licenses for the federal and offshore territories, i.e. the commercial exploitation of resources, many of which are located on protected territories and reservations.
This jurisdiction places the Haaland cabinet position in a pivotal point on many environmental controversies and has earned it fierce opposition from Republican senators who campaigned against her as a “Green New Deal extremist.”
Haaland, on the other hand, had the support of the president who, in one of his first presidential decrees, suspended the construction of the Keystone pipeline that would connect the Canadian fields to the Texan refineries. Another similar pipeline under construction, the Dakota Access, crosses Sioux lands and has been the subject of the very hard struggles at Standing Rock by that tribe that have — for now — obtained the suspension of the project.
An interior portfolio headed by Haaland bodes well for the final scrapping of these large oil infrastructure works. In any case, this is a clear turnaround with respect to the Trump administration which had contracted the regulatory bodies directly to the large hydrocarbon lobbies.
The Department of the Interior has always been the department that symbolizes some of the nation’s founding themes linked to continental conquest and the related historical injustices. It is perhaps the department most directly connected to some original disputes. It is no coincidence that the secretaries who held this office have often found themselves at the center of political controversy.
Under Reagan, for example, Secretary James Watt had been the spearhead of the systematic deconstruction of the environmental protections established in previous decades, promoted by the reactionary and “confindustrial” wave.
A work that Trump attempted to complete by assigning the position to Ryan Zinke, former Navy Seal, speculator and oil man who opened access to hunters and drills, curtailing national parks such as the Staircase Escalante in Utah, with its ancestral Hopi settlements and lastly the Arctic nature reserve, decreed the new frontier of oil fields that guards its subsoil.
It is a history that underscores the symbolic importance of Haaland’s appointment, which, for the first time, will bring the cultural baggage of the “defeated” to the president’s cabinet and will directly affect the process of historical elaboration and rectification which remains crucial and a necessary reparation if America will want to advance on the path of reconciliation so abruptly interrupted by Trump’s supremacist nationalism.
It is an important sign — perhaps for the best — that the Biden administration promises to combine issues of social and economic justice with the agenda of environmental reform.