As Rep. Deb Haaland prepares for a Senate hearing Tuesday that could make her the first Native American in history to lead the Interior Department, her supporters are listening to Republican opposition to her nomination with worry — and anger.
Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, is expected to face sharp questioning from GOP members on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee regarding her opposition to new oil and gas drilling leases on federal land — a position she shares with President Biden. Her lifetime score on environmental issues with the League of Conservation Voters is 98 percent.
In addition to breaking a barrier at Interior, Haaland would be the first Native American Cabinet secretary. In a letter to Biden last month, congressional Republicans asked him to revoke her historic nomination over their concerns.
At least one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the committee chairperson, has said he has not decided how he will vote. But in a mid-January interview with The Washington Post, Manchin said he’s “always been deferential to whoever the president” picks for his Cabinet.
Unlike the bipartisan approvals enjoyed by the last two nominees to run Interior, Haaland’s nomination may face a tie vote on the committee, which is composed of 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans. In that case, Democrats would still be able to bring Haaland’s nomination to the full Senate for a vote following several procedural steps.
Native Americans are letting the senators know they’re watching.
On reservations, at think tanks, in cultural groups and lobbying organizations, American Indians who celebrated Haaland’s selection are working to push it through to confirmation. They are organizing a multicultural coalition stretching from Washington, D.C., to her home state of New Mexico to Montana and Oregon to voice support for Haaland.
The Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council erected two billboards Thursday with Haaland’s picture in Billings and Great Falls, Mont., the state represented by Haaland’s harshest critic, Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican. Tom Rodgers, president of Global Indigenous Council, said the group wants to send a message to Daines, who has said he may try to block Haaland’s nomination.
Daines has questioned Haaland’s qualifications to run a department that manages 73 million acres of land with vast energy resources, criticized her support for the Green New Deal, and has labeled her positions “radical.”
“Even though he’s a senator from the state of Montana, his statements did not reflect the views of the tribes at all,” Holly Cook Macarro, chairperson of the American Indian Graduate Center, said of Daines. Native people are nearly 10 percent of Montana’s population, she said. “We are not invisible.”
As the billboards were erected in Montana, Haaland’s supporters have lined up speakers for a virtual town hall to be held Monday before the hearing. Organizers plan a tweetstorm that will exhort supporters to contact their senators. They want the tweeting to continue the following day throughout the hearing.
“You’re watching a big campaign unfold right now,” said Crystal EchoHawk, executive director of Illumanative, a nonprofit group that works to use pop culture and media to undo Native American stereotypes.
“There was a groundswell of support of her nomination and it was diverse and big,” EchoHawk said. “People have been hanging back and waiting, and now that we finally have a hearing date, we’re taking action. I think obviously part of the catalyst has been the absolute outrage that people have been expressing after seeing these statements Republicans have been making.”
Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance, said the criticism of Haaland at such a historic moment stings. In addition to managing land, Interior oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Country.
“American Indians, we suffer from being erased from history. We were brought to our knees and forced into treaties. A huge majority of people think we don’t even exist,” LeBlanc said. “This department has the most impact on our daily lives. Land use, water use, health care, education and tribal governance.
“This nomination has such grassroots pride about the fact that one of our people is being nominated. I’m an elder. I’m 69. I’ve never seen anything like this. We are being rewritten back into history.”
Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation in New Mexico, where 30,000 drilling wells and numerous mineral mines dot the landscape. Native people have complained about the pollution caused by mining excavation for decades, along the failure of companies to restore the land they damage to unearth resources.
According to the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association, industry revenue put $800 million into state coffers in the last year and supports 134,000 jobs directly and indirectly.
During the Trump administration, the Department of the Interior increased federal leases, expanded drilling on public land and relaxed regulations against pollution and harming wildlife. That prompted Haaland to say, “The last thing we need are more fossil fuel projects on public land,” according to a 2019 story posted on her website.
A U.S. Geological Survey study noted that a quarter of all carbon emissions in the United States comes from fossil fuel production on federal land.
Haaland, who attended the protest of the North Dakota Pipeline at Standing Rock, was an early backer of the Green New Deal that seeks to dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewable energy. Republicans have attacked the plan as an attempt to erase the fossil fuel industry and cut jobs.
The Jan. 26 letter from Republicans that asked Biden to revoke Haaland’s nomination said her goal to stop all oil and gas leasing on federal lands would kill “an industry that provided more than $8 billion in revenue to the United States in 2019 alone.” Not only does Haaland reject “America’s leadership as a net exporter of petroleum, but also has actively fought to oppose high-wage mining jobs,” according to the letter.
Montana state Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder Reservation and Fort Belknap, scoffed at the criticism: “She has enough sense not to oppose anything and everything,” he said.
“They don’t think she’s qualified … based upon her views,” Windy Boy said. “It’s unfortunate because they haven’t given her the chance to do anything. Look at four years ago. People were nominated who didn’t have the qualifications Deb has now and [Republicans] didn’t question any of those unqualified candidates.”
Windy Boy was referring to Ryan Zinke, a former U.S. representative from Montana who was Trump’s first interior secretary. Zinke was a staunch advocate of drilling and coal excavation whose nomination was approved 16-6 in committee.
“There’s been that thread of conversation that has been misogynistic,” Macarro said. “The bar they’re setting for Deb to gain their support is ironic given their support for Ryan Zinke.”
Julian Noise BraveCat, one of the architects of the Green New Deal, said, “She’s a progressive, sure, that’s undeniable. But all of her colleagues love working with her, including Republicans who sing her praises. It makes me wonder as a Native person if they would be treating someone with a different background differently, and I think Native people have the same question.”
Republicans would be unwise to overlook the historic significance of Haaland’s nomination, BraveCat said. Native Americans live in the West, within deep red states, and have cultivated relationships with Republicans and don’t lean as heavily Democratic as African Americans.
BraveCat said the treatment of Native Americans by Republicans could push them to lean even more to the political left. “I think that one thing that could be happening here is that we might be seeing a realignment of Indian issues becoming a Democratic issues.”
Jim Enote, chief executive of the Colorado Plateau Foundation, which funds Indian initiatives to protect food, water and historical artifacts, said he’s not a part of the campaign to support Haaland but understands it.
“Many people are rising in support of Deb Haaland because she embodies the fact that 21st century Native Americans are not a generation of sufferers,” Enote said. “We are capable of solving the most difficult problems facing our world. She’s is in touch with the land and water issues that are so emblematic of the problems we face as a nation.”
“She is a powerful message to Native Americans and Americans that we are stepping into higher ground,” he said. “We are not your mascots.”
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The Washington Post’s Dino Grandoni contributed to this story.