President-elect Joe Biden chose Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) Thursday to serve as the first Native American Cabinet secretary and head the Interior Department, a historic pick that marks a turning point for the U.S. government’s relationship with the nation’s Indigenous peoples.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland tweeted Thursday night. “ ... I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
In addition to Haaland, Biden has turned to North Carolina environmental regulator Michael S. Regan to become the first Black man to head the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as Obama administration veteran Brenda Mallory to serve as the first Black chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
While the picks represent a concession to progressives in Biden’s party, who publicly campaigned for an American Indian at the helm of Interior, they were also chosen to personify Biden’s plans to address the long-standing burdens low-income and minority communities have shouldered when it comes to dirty air and water. All three nominees will play a central role in realizing his promises to combat climate change, embrace green energy and address environmental racism.
“We have individuals coming to these positions who have seen what it’s like on the other side, in terms of communities that have suffered,” environmental justice pioneer Bob Bullard said in an interview Thursday. “They have been fighting for justice. Now they are in a position to make change and make policy. That, to me, has the potential to be transformative.”
Earlier this week, Biden chose former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm (D), a proponent of zero-emission vehicles, as his energy secretary nominee. He also established the first White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and designated former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to head it. Former Obama budget official Ali Zaidi will serve as her deputy.
“This brilliant, tested, trailblazing team will be ready on day one to confront the existential threat of climate change with a unified national response rooted in science and equity,” Biden said in a statement Thursday. “They share my belief that we have no time to waste to confront the climate crisis, protect our air and drinking water, and deliver justice to communities that have long shouldered the burdens of environmental harms.”
If confirmed, Regan, 44, who heads the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, would be responsible for crafting fuel-efficiency standards for the nation’s cars and trucks, overseeing emissions from power plants and oil and gas facilities and cleaning up the country’s most polluted sites.
Regan has served as the state’s top environmental official since early 2017, when Gov. Roy Cooper (D) named him to his current role. While union leaders have criticized his approach at times, he has shown a capacity to work with community activists and the corporate world.
Regan forged a multibillion-dollar settlement over cleanups of coal waste with Duke Energy, established an environmental justice advisory board, and reached across the political divide to work with the state’s Republican legislature. In another high-profile case, the state ordered the chemical company Chemours to virtually eliminate a group of man-made chemicals from seeping into the Cape Fear River.
Before entering state government, Regan worked on climate change and pollution issues as southeast regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group. “Michael knows how to make progress even when that isn’t easy — that’s a necessary skill in North Carolina,” the group’s president, Fred Krupp, said in an email.
In selecting 60-year-old Haaland, a member of Pueblo of Laguna, Biden has placed the descendant of the original people to populate North America atop a 171-year-old institution that has often had a fraught relationship with the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes.
Three divisions of Interior have a tremendous impact on Indian Country, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, which manages billions held in trust by the U.S. government.
“It’s called plenary power,” said University of Colorado Boulder law professor Charles Wilkinson. “Native people jokingly call it, ‘plenty power.’ ”
Born in Arizona to a Native American mother who served in the Navy and a Norwegian American father who was an active-duty Marine, Haaland bounced between 13 public schools as the family changed military bases. At 15, she worked at a bakery, and later attended law school with the help of student loans and food stamps, occasionally experiencing homelessness as a single mother.
Now, after serving a single term in Congress, she will oversee a department that manages roughly one-fifth of land in the U.S. While she hails from a top oil-and gas-producing state, Haaland has pledged to transform the department from a champion of fossil fuel development into a promoter of renewable energy and policies to mitigate climate change.
“I come from New Mexico. It’s a big gas and oil state. And I care about every single job,” Haaland said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. But she added: “We don’t want to go back to normal, right? We don’t want to go back to where we were because that economy wasn’t working for a lot of people.”
Biden, meanwhile, has pledged to halt all new oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters, a daunting task that faces both legal and political obstacles. The extraction of oil, gas and coal in these areas accounts for nearly a quarter of the nation’s annual carbon output.
In a sign of the opposition the administration will soon face, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association issued a statement noting drilling on federal land generates $800 million annually for the state’s government. “We hope Rep. Haaland will employ a balanced approach that considers the needs of all who depend on public lands, including the thousands of men and women and families whose livelihoods depend on access to public lands for resource development,” the group said.
Interior oversees vast protected areas — including 75 million acres of wilderness and 422 national park sites, as well as national monuments and wildlife refuges. It safeguards more than 1,000 endangered species, and manages massive water projects in the West that help sustain farmland and provide drinking water for major cities including Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Haaland just won reelection from a north central New Mexico district that leans Democratic. If confirmed by the Senate, her party will have a razor-thin margin over Republicans in the House until her seat is filled. Right now Democrats hold 222 seats, pending a re-canvassing in a New York race and challenges in Iowa, and Biden has already tapped two other House Democrats to serve in his administration, Reps. Cedric L. Richmond (La.) and Marcia L. Fudge (Ohio).
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that she would not stand in the way of Haaland leaving the House, calling her “one of the most respected and one of the best members of Congress I have served with.”
As a child, Haaland spent summers with her grandparents in a house without running water in Mesita, one of Laguna Pueblo’s small villages in New Mexico.
“As kids we moved a lot because my dad was in the service, but no matter where we were he would take us outside,” she recalled. “In New Mexico we would hike in Jemez during a rainstorm, or at other military bases we would visit the ocean.”
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and helped lead the campaign for Haaland to be interior secretary, said a diverse Cabinet will pursue environmental policies that are “inclusive and involving the breadth of who the American people are.”
“That’s important, that nobody be left behind as we go forward,” he added.
Biden’s decision to appoint Haaland to head Interior will hold profound meaning for the 1.9 million Native Americans whose education and health care are often influenced by the department’s decisions.
Jim Enote, a Zuni tribal member and chief executive of the Native-led Colorado Plateau Foundation, said in an interview that the move signals how much has changed over the past half-century. Native Americans “do not participate in the same channels of influence as other Americans,” he said, and some previous Interior secretaries have held a dismissive attitude toward the country’s first inhabitants.
The legacy of Interior is blemished by instances of federal officials removing Native Americans from their ancestral lands — including from Yellowstone, the first and perhaps most iconic national park.
Years later, in 1972, several hundred tribal activists took over the Interior Department headquarters in Washington to draw attention to their plight. In 1983, then-Interior Secretary James G. Watt blamed the problems on U.S. reservations on Indigenous culture.
“If you want an example of the failure of socialism,” Watt said in an interview on a satellite radio show based in Tulsa, “don’t go to Russia. Come to America and go to the Indian reservations.”
Biden’s choice comes as the federal government’s relationship with tribes has eroded under the Trump administration, which has removed protections from sacred tribal sites in Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and allowed oil drillers into Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to the caribou that Native Alaskans hunt for food.
“The Trump administration has not been kind to Indian country,” Haaland said. “He has thrown tribal consultation essentially out the window.”
She argued that Trump’s interior secretaries, Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt, reorganized the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies in ways that hampered the ability of Native Americans to confer with federal officials.
Chase Iron Eyes, a Native American activist and attorney with the Lakota People’s Law Project, said that while Indigenous people have several champions in Congress, he is elated the department will be run by a tribal member.
“It could not have been in our forefathers’ dreams to have an actual Indian be appointed at the Cabinet level in the agency that is meant to oversee their absorption,” he said.
Charles Curtis, a Republican and member of the Kaw nation who was vice president from 1929 to 1933 under President Herbert Hoover, was the first person of Native American ancestry to serve at the highest levels of the federal government.
Haaland bolstered her national profile in 2016 by going to the Standing Rock Sioux’s reservation in North and South Dakota to join tribal leaders in opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. “She asked what I needed and what the tribe needed,” said Jodi Archambault, a former special assistant to Barack Obama for Native American affairs and a member of the tribe. Haaland, she said, was able to provide support from some New Mexico labor unions — and tortillas and green chili stew.
“She brought her own cooking things and opened her trunk up, and said, ‘This is the best I can do,’ ” Archambault said, adding, “The stew was really good; the tortillas were excellent.”
Steven Mufson and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.