Deb Haaland has been confirmed as the secretary of the interior, making her the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in US history.
Haaland, 60, will be responsible for the country’s land, seas and natural resources, as well as overseeing tribal affairs.
Her nomination to lead the Interior Department was a victory for an alliance of progressives and Indigenous leaders who campaigned to elevate one of their own to a powerful federal seat that oversees natural resources, public lands and Indian affairs. Haaland will be part of Biden's plan to tackle the climate crisis and reduce carbon emissions.
Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo, one of 574 sovereign tribal nations located across 35 states. She is the most senior Indigenous American in the US government since the Republican Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw nation situated in what is now Kansas, who served as vice-president to Herbert Hoover between 1929 and 1933.
The vote was 51 to 40, with most Republicans voting against her after several called her views on public land use and fossil fuels extreme.
Republicans who oppose Haaland's nomination highlighted previous comments she's made related to fossil fuels and answers they felt were insufficient at her confirmation hearing. Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming and the ranking GOP member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, spoke in opposition to the nomination in a floor speech Thursday.
"Representative Haaland's policy views and lack of substantive answers during her confirmation hearing, in my opinion, disqualify her for this job," Barrasso said, referencing past comments she has made, including during a 2019 interview with The Guardian where she stated that she "wholeheartedly" opposes fracking and drilling on public lands.
"In my opinion and in the opinion of my constituents, these views are extreme," he said, adding that her views are "backed up by legislation that she has co-sponsored" and noting that she has co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution in the House.
She will lead about 70,000 staff who oversee one-fifth of all the land in the US and 1.7bn acres of coastlines, as well as managing national parks, wildlife refuges and natural resources such as gas, oil and water.
Haaland will also be responsible for upholding the government’s legally binding obligations to the tribes – treaty obligations that have been systematically violated.
New Mexico’s Democratic senator, Ben Ray Luján, who presided over the Senate during Monday’s vote, said Haaland’s appointment sends a signal to young Native Americans.
“She’s the embodiment of the old adage that if you see it you can be it,” he said.
According to the 2010 census, 5.2 million people or about 2% of the US population identifies as American Indian or Alaskan Native – descendants of those who survived US government policies to kill, remove or assimilate indigenous peoples.