Rep. Debra Anne Haaland of New Mexico was confirmed Monday as the country’s first Native American Cabinet-level official, becoming secretary of the interior.
The U.S. Senate vote was 51-40.
“This is an historic day for Indian Country and for all Americans as Congresswoman Haaland becomes Interior Secretary Haaland,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a prepared statement. “This confirmation puts us on a new path to putting science first, tackling the climate crisis head on, preserving our public lands, and recognizing the role we all play in the stewardship of our lands and waters. Congratulations to our new Secretary of the Interior.”
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also voted to confirm the appointment. “I was proud to support Secretary Haaland’s historic confirmation and I look forward to working with her to support Washington state’s Tribes and protect our wild spaces,” Murray said in an emailed statement.
Haaland, 61, is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and says her roots in New Mexico go back 35 generations. Her leadership at the Department of the Interior marks a turning point for the nation’s relations with Indigenous people.
Haaland holds a powerful federal seat that oversees natural resources, public lands and Indian affairs, including relations with 574 federally recognized Indian tribes.
Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe and president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, praised the confirmation.
“The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians celebrates the U.S. Senate confirmation of Deb Haaland as the first American Indian woman in charge of the Interior Department,” Forsman said in a prepared statement.
Tribal points of view have frequently been overlooked at the Interior Department, Forsman said, even though it houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs and manages essential cultural resources and the conservation of public lands.
“Her balanced, bipartisan approach is just what we need on the tough issues we face today,” Forsman said. “Her leadership will be needed as we map out the future of salmon runs on our Coast, Salish Sea, and Columbia and Snake Rivers; protect sacred sites; and manage natural resources for generations to come.
“We look forward to working closely with her on these and other critical policy issues facing Indian Country, rural America, and our common heritage.”
Other appointments include Robert Anderson, who will be one of Haaland’s top lawyers, and Jaime Pinkham, a Nez Perce tribal member, to a top post at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Those appointments do not need to be confirmed by the Senate.
Anderson has been appointed principal deputy solicitor at the Department of the Interior.
He is enrolled in the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and has taught at the University of Washington School of Law and directed its Native American Law Center for the past 20 years. He also has been a visiting professor at the Harvard Law School for more than a decade.
Pinkham, a Nez Perce tribal member and treaty fishing rights champion as executive director of the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, has been invited by the Biden administration to serve as a primary deputy secretary for civil works at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Haaland rose to high office from humble roots.
As a single mother, she had to rely on food stamps at times, according to her congressional office website, and she is still paying off her student loans. She earned degrees from the University of New Mexico and UNM Law School.
She brings a diversity of experience to the job. Haaland has not only served as an elected official but also ran a business producing and canning Pueblo Salsa.
She oversaw business operations of the second largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico, served as administrator for her tribe, and worked as a local service provider for adults with developmental disabilities.
At the Interior Department, she will oversee an agency with some 70,000 employees across many bureaus and offices, with diverse technical, scientific, lands management, conservation and human service missions, including the National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education.