Haaland makes history, heads Interior Department at a critical time

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Thursday, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland made history upon her swearing-in as the first Native American woman in the United States Cabinet and the first to lead an Executive Branch department. Approved on a bipartisan 51-40 vote, Haaland will lead a Department with enormous authority over public lands, natural resources, and indigenous issues.

While bipartisan, the road to Secretary Haaland’s confirmation was fraught with environmental controversy and racial biases. One Minnesota member of congress led a campaign in the House to oppose her nomination. Minnesota U.S. Senator Tina Smith spoke out against the attacks on Haaland, which played on tropes about Native Americans and sought to paint the appointee as a radical.  MEP and around forty other organizations, members of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, signed a letter of support for Haaland’s confirmation.

Secretary Haaland is a former U.S. Representative from the area of Albuquerque, New Mexico and is an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. She has a background in law, business, and tribal government. Her service as Secretary means that she will be the first Native American to oversee the federal department largely responsible for indigenous tribal issues, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

At Interior, Haaland leads one of the oldest and largest federal departments in the United States. The Department of the Interior administers 75% of the roughly 640 million acres of land controlled by the federal government. This includes National Parks, monuments, reservoirs, and other resources.

The Department of the Interior, and Haaland’s service, has powerful implications for Minnesota through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Twelve federally recognized tribes, both Dakota and Anishinaabe, hold land within the state’s boundaries. Minnesota’s history is inseparable from the state’s continual attacks over centuries on tribal land and sovereignty, which continues today in the form of environmental injustice and other offenses. Having an Interior Secretary who is a tribal member, who appeared at protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and who has opposed fracking may signal a positive change in the government’s relationship with tribes.

Other Interior Agencies, including the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey, are active in Minnesota and around the Lake Superior watershed. They oversee many treasured public lands like Voyageurs National Park, Isle Royale and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, provide vital scientific data, and make decisions on the use of natural resources within the areas they oversee. We know that good stewardship of public lands will be crucial in the fight against climate change, so it is encouraging to see the Interior Secretary’s record in favor of ambitious climate action.

We hope to see Secretary Haaland continue to lead on climate action, Great Lakes restoration, protection of our public lands and other issues critical to our future in Minnesota and the nation.

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