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Deb Haaland Could Be the First Native Secretary of the Interior

After years of slashed environmental regulations, the United States’ public lands need a friend—and hundreds of U.S. representatives, tribal leaders, and even celebrities think Rep. Deb Haaland could be it.

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Update, December 17: President-Elect Joe Biden will nominate Deb Haaland for secretary of the interior, multiple media outlets including the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have reported. In a statement, Outdoor Industry Association of America Executive Director Lisa Aageenbrug praised the appointment, calling Haaland “a strong advocate for our nation’s public lands and waterways.” 

Original Post: As the head of the department that oversees the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, the secretary of the interior is arguably the most powerful person in US public lands policy. They are able to use rule changes and appointments to reshape America’s relationship with national parks, mining, endangered species, and more. But for all that power, secretaries of the interior don’t tend to enjoy the kind of public recognition that secretaries of state or defense do. So when Cher is publicly campaigning for someone to fill the post, you know there’s something special going on.

The singer is one of more than 100 prominent women, including Gloria Steinem and Kerry Washington, and more, who signed on to an open letter urging President-Elect Joe Biden to select Deb Haaland, a first-term U.S. representative from New Mexico, to head the department. If selected, she would be the first Native secretary of the interior in the country’s history, and could change the tone of US environmental policy for years to come.

A self-identified 35th-generation New Mexican and registered member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland has made her mark as a fierce advocate for racial, economic and environmental justice. The daughter of two military veterans, Haaland earned her law degree from the University of New Mexico while raising her daughter as a single mother, founded her own business, and worked in various roles for Laguna and San Felipe Pueblos before serving as the chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party. In 2018, she, along with Sharice Davids of Kansas, became one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. If chosen for the interior role, she would be the first Native cabinet member ever.

Whoever Biden picks will likely be a sea change from President Trump’s Department of the Interior, which has been defined largely by its aggressive support for fossil fuels and loosening of environmental regulations. The current head of the department, David Bernhardt, is a lawyer with close ties to the fossil fuel industry who has openly disregarded climate science; after Trump nominated him, Senator Elizabeth Warren called Bernhardt a “walking conflict of interest.” Another prominent member of the department, acting Bureau of Land Management head William Perry Pendley, has argued against the existence of systemic racism and speculated in his 2006 book, Warriors of the West, about a future where Native people and tribes might cease to exist.

Haaland, on the other hand, has staunchly advocated for clean energy development and supported legislation to defund some federal law enforcement operations that she said “harass[ed] people and abuse[d] their power.” She campaigned against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and in 2016 joined “water protectors” to protest the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.

Besides Cher, Haaland’s backers include more than 50 Democratic representatives, including Ayanna Pressley and Raul Grijalva, who signed a letter urging Biden to pick her for the post, and 120 elected tribal leaders who have urged Biden to select a Native person for his cabinet. Unnamed sources within the transition team have told outlets like Bloomberg and The Hill that she’s currently the top candidate for the job, and on December 16, Nancy Pelosi added her support, calling Haaland “an excellent choice” in a statement. While Haaland says she’s not campaigning for the job, in an interview with HuffPost, she acknowledged that an Indigenous woman overseeing lands that were once forcibly taken from Native American people would be both profoundly symbolic and valuable.

“I think it’s a time in our world ― not just in our country, but our entire world ― to listen to Indigenous people when it comes to climate change, when it comes to our environment,” she said.