Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In 'historic moment' for tribes, U.S. Senate to vote on first Native American Interior secretary

Jim Watson
Pool via AP
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is sworn in before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior Secretary, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

UPDATE, 3:21 pm: the U.S. Senate confirmed Haaland 51-40 in a roll-call vote.

The U.S. Senate will vote on the confirmation of Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico as Secretary of the Interior at 2:30 p.m. Monday. She would be the first Native American named to a U.S. Cabinet position. 

Along with managing most federal public lands, the Interior department is in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which provides services to 574 federally recognized tribes.

“I guess you could say it's ironic that we finally have got an American Indian in that in that building,” says Leonard Forsman, board president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. He’s also chairman of the Suquamish and says since he started serving as a tribal councilmember in his 20s, the policies of the Interior Department have filled him with a mix of resentment and fear.

“So now to have one of our own in there to set policy is really an amazing turn of events,” he says.

Forsman wants Interior to do a better job managing cultural resources and consultations with tribes, along with the conservation work it does on public lands. He believes Haaland will bring balance and bi-partisanship to tough issues, such as the future of dams on the Columbia River system.

Mike Tulee agrees. He is executive director of theUnited Indians of All Tribes Foundation in Seattle, which runs the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Discovery Park. Tulee says he met Haaland once and feels confident about her ability to carry out complex policy work.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., listens during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior Secretary.
Credit Graeme Jennings / The Associated Press
The Associated Press
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., listens during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior Secretary.

“She's very well versed. She could take conversations on many fronts. I believe she just really holds herself to account. … I just have sheer confidence in her ability to deal with two worlds -- her Native world/culture as well as the outer world, of mainstream society,” Tulee says.

“I think she knows how to bridge those kind of conversations, to make the best decisions possible of moving forward.”

Some opponents have called her "radical" and raised concerns that her support for progressive policies such as the Green New Deal will hurt working-class people in fossil fuel-dependent states. Some are also blaming her for promises from the Biden administration to stop issuing new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

The appointment of Haaland comes after the National Congress of American Indians resolved in November that the next U.S. Interior secretary should be a Native American.

Quinault President Fawn Sharp is also president of the NCAI. She put out a statement after the Biden administration announced the nomination, headlining it as an “historic moment for tribal nations.”

Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation
Credit The Associated Press file
The Associated Press file
Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation

“Today, all of Indian Country celebrates an incredible and historic milestone,” her statement says. “The centuries of invisibility of American Indian and Alaska Native people are fading as our best and brightest emerge into prominent positions of leadership. Like all Native people, Representative Haaland possesses a centuries-old tie and reverence for the beautiful and sacred landscape of this country that was gifted to our ancestors when time began. She will no doubt work hard every day to ensure federal lands continue to be managed in a way that ensures many more generations to come will experience and know America’s beauty and timeless legacy.”

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to