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  • Fotouh Al Awadhi

Historic Confirmation of Debra Haaland as Biden’s Interior Secretary

Former New Mexico Congresswoman Debra Haaland makes history again after being confirmed as the first Native American Cabinet Secretary on March 15, 2021.

This is not the first time that Deb Haaland has made history. In 2018, Haaland was elected as one of the first Native American women to serve in the United States Congress. She represented New Mexico’s First blue-leaning Congressional District. Haaland has now left her job in Congress to serve the United States and the Biden Administration as Cabinet Secretary of the Interior.

Haaland was brought up in a military home and is a single mother who fought to stay above the poverty line. She has dedicated her efforts to public service, fighting for underprivileged families within Tribal Nations, rural communities, and communities of color and missing or murdered Indigenous women. Haaland also advocates the importance of clean energy while opposing climate change and its effects on communities and the nation as a whole.

On December 17, 2020, President Biden nominated Representative Debra Haaland as his Secretary of Interior. Appointed to supervise a $21 billion agency charged to inspect the United States’ tribal and public lands, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Haaland is also assigned to mend the relationship and trust between the 574 federally acknowledged tribes and a department that has dilapidated Indigenous people for centuries.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held Haaland’s confirmation hearings on February 23 and 24 of 2021. The Senate then voted 51-40 on March 15 confirming Debra Haaland as the first person of Native American descent to be a Cabinet secretary and lead The Department of Interior. Many Republicans voted against her confirmation as they view her position on fossil fuels, public land use, and pipelines as radical. However, four Republicans joined the 47 Democratic Senators in voting and later confirming Debra Haaland. These senators are Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Susan Collins (R-ME). “I am going to place my trust in Representative Haaland and her team, despite some very real misgivings. And Representative Haaland, if you are listening, know that I intend to work with you because I want you to be successful and need you to be successful, but I am also going to hold you to your commitments to ensure that Alaska is allowed to prosper," Murkowski stated.

Alaska’s GOP vote in favor of Haaland is the result of increasing environmental problems within Alaska and the many Alaskan Natives who support Haaland and call the state home. In addition, The Lung Association reported Alaska as having some of the worst air quality in the nation as it also ranks sixth in U.S. states with highest air pollution.

Contrastly, many Republicans view Biden’s focus on climate change (thereby his selection of Haaland) as threatening to American jobs within the gas, coal, and fossil fuel divisions. Thus, during the confirmation process, numerous Republican lawmakers opposed Biden’s nominee such as Senator John Barrasso (R-WY). Barraso voiced that Haaland illustrated her opposition to drilling on public lands and fracking during a 2019 interview with The Guardian stating that “in his opinion and the opinion of his constituents, these views are extreme.” Barraso continues by saying that “Haaland's policy views and lack of substantive answers during her confirmation hearing, in my opinion, disqualify her for this job.” Haaland proceeded to reassure Republican politicians and the general public that “the department has a role in harnessing the clean energy potential of our public lands to create jobs and new economic opportunities.”

Further, Haaland’s confirmation also aligned with the views of many tribal leaders as they praised her victory. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona stated: “As Tribal Leaders we are very proud of all that Secretary Haaland has accomplished as a public servant, and we look forward to working with her as she continues her service to the United States of America as Secretary of the Department of the Interior.”

In addition, the All Pueblo Council of Governors sent out a statement post confirmation that applauded their fellow Pueblo member Haaland on her win. Former Governor of Laguna Pueblo, Wilfred Herrera Jr. explained how they believe that Haaland’s win will yield “a long-overdue opportunity to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship and help our nation swing the pendulum on our most pressing Indigenous and environmental justice issues.” Herrera further explained the importance of this historic win by stating: “this confirmation is a defining moment for Indigenous peoples not only in the United States but around the world. Indigenous peoples are the original stewards of our lands, waters, skies, and of all living beings.”

Biden’s decision in nominating Haaland communicated the importance of having an official tasked with fixing the nation's environmental crisis who shares a similar background and parallel experiences with American citizens who have been disproportionately affected by damage done to the environment. After Haaland’s nomination she tweeted: “A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior. Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land. I am honored and ready to serve.”

A 2019 report issued by DigDeep and US Water Alliance showed that more than 30% of people within the Navajo Nation do not have access to clean water. This causes many individuals within the nation to drive more than 40 miles every couple of days to haul water back home. The scarcity of clean water means people are choosing between basic hygiene like bathing and drinking or cooking with clean water.

Through their research, DigDeep and US Water Alliance found that Navajo tribe members are two to four times more likely to get diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than white people. This is solely due to the fact that drinks with high amounts of sugar are substantially more accessible than clean and filtered water. In addition, the study noted that groundwater contamination within the Navajo Nation is due to uranium mining during the 1990s and the 521 abandoned uranium mines as a result of. Consequently, gastric cancer rates within the nation doubled since the 1990s and the likelihood for hypertension, kidney disease and chronic illnesses has increased significantly due to their close proximity to mine waste.

Though ultimately, despite her more progressive views on climate change, Haaland demonstrated throughout the hearings that she would not be governed by her own incentives as she would work in favor of the Biden administration and the agenda that it upholds. When questioned about her previous statements on fracking and pipelines and whether or not she stands by them today, Haaland replied by saying "President Biden does not support a ban on fracking is my understanding." Haaland later stated that “the president’s agenda demonstrates that America’s public lands can and should be engines for clean energy production” asserting that President Biden’s outlooks are the optimal solution in decreasing and rectifying environmental damage. She adds that if confirmed as secretary she “would be serving at the pleasure of the President and it would be his agenda that she would move forward.”

In essence, this confirmation is historic on many levels as Haaland will be the first person with Native American and Indigenous background serving as the Secretary of Interior. Haaland’s background will provide a new insight to the department as she knows first-hand the struggles of Native Americans and their Indigenous lands due to negligence from The United States Government throughout history. Biden’s administration hopes that this insight will create a bridging link between the Native Americans and the government in rectifying the ongoing issues of climate change, addressing conflicting interests and diplomatically finding common ground between both sides.

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