A push emerges for the First Secretary of the Native American interior

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WASHINGTON – A coalition of Democrats, Native Americans and liberal activists urges President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to appoint one of the first Native American women in Congress to head the Home Office, putting an Indian in America at the helm of large swathes of the continent and the Office of Indian Affairs.

The appointment of Representative Deb Haaland, Democrat of New Mexico, as Home Secretary would have undeniable symbolic power. If confirmed, a first-time Native American would oversee 500 million acres of public land, including national parks, oil and gas drilling sites, and habitat for endangered species, and monitor agencies federal officials most responsible for the welfare of 1.9. millions of indigenous people.

Ms. Haaland and Sharice Davids of Kansas made history in 2018 as the first two Native American women elected to Congress, and Ms. Haaland would do so again as the first Native American cabinet secretary. But his lack of political experience worries some of Biden’s advisers, who have proposed another Native American candidate: Michael L. Connor, assistant secretary of the interior in the Obama administration, whose experience is indisputable, although he does not lacks the star power of Ms. Haaland.

Ms. Haaland is a citizen of Laguna Pueblo and Mr. Connor is from the Taos Pueblo, sovereign nations near Albuquerque and Taos which are among the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes.

For either candidate, a nomination would hold tremendous power for Native Americans. For much of the country’s history, the Home Office ruled federal lands and often dislodged and mistreated Native Americans. In 1972, about 500 Native American activists took over the headquarters of the department in Washington, protesting the standard of living and broken treaties.

The next Home Secretary will also be responsible for restoring environmental protections to the millions of acres of public land that the Trump administration has opened up for drilling, mining, logging and construction.

Historians and Native American leaders have said that the appointment of a Native American to head the Department of the Interior would be a profound moment in American history.

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“The Home Office has been the driving force behind the modern day genocide against Native American peoples,” said Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean and professor of law at the University of Utah and a citizen of Sault Ste. Marie tribe of the Chippewa Indians. “We would go from the shadow of perpetuated genocide to a chair at the table, from being categorized as a bunch of people the federal government was trying to destroy to a president who said, ‘I see you and appreciate you to the point. that I will elevate you to the highest decision-making level in the land.

A spokesperson for Biden’s transition team, Sean Savett, said no staff decisions regarding the Home Department have been made. But Mr. Biden’s campaign pledges included detailed proposals to improve equality for Native Americans, including a pledge that “Biden will ensure tribes have a table seat at the highest levels of the federal government.”

Tribal activists and environmentalists are urging him to follow through.

The Lakota People’s Rights Action Center launched a petition, supported by more than 120 tribal chiefs, in support of Ms. Haaland.

“Like no year before, 2020 has shown us what happens when we fail to see the importance of putting the right leaders in position to protect society,” the petition reads.

A separate petition started by liberal activists and signed by at least 25,000 people also calls on Mr. Biden to appoint a Native American secretary of the interior.

Actor and conservationist Mark Ruffalo posted a video on Twitter with tribal leaders speaking out in favor of Ms Haaland.

“It’s time for the very first Native American to sit in the President’s cabinet to defend tribal sovereignty and protect our public lands as Home Secretary,” said Brandon Yellowbird-Stevens, Oneida Nation Vice President , in the video.

Representative Raúl Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who chairs the committee that oversees the Home Office, sent a letter to Mr Biden signed by at least 50 colleagues asking for the appointment of Ms Haaland, who served on the committee of Mr. Grijalva’s natural resources since he joined Congress last year.

“The Interior Ministry was basically created not to take care of indigenous peoples – it was created to demolish them and deprive them of their rights,” Grijalva said in an interview. “To come full circle, historically, and put a Native in front of the Interior who can do the job – you don’t often get those kinds of opportunities to make history.

Mr. Grijalva rebuffed the idea that Ms. Haaland was not qualified for the post.

“It’s not a showcase,” he says. “She’s competent. She is a pro, both politically and in terms of politics, and as a member of the resource committee and chair of the public lands subcommittee, she has had to endure abuse from the Trump administration of the Department of Interior.

Ms Haaland has made it clear that she wants the job.

“It would be an honor to advance the Biden-Harris climate agenda, help mend government-to-government relationships with the tribes the Trump administration has ruined, and become the first Native American cabinet secretary in history of our country, ”she said in a statement.

Ms Haaland campaigned in 2018 against the Trump administration’s sweeping immigration policies and promoted Indigenous sovereignty as the “35th Generation New Mexican.” She argues that many of the issues affecting indigenous communities – such as low-wage jobs and violence against women – also affect other groups.

In 2015, she became the head of the state Democratic Party and helped bring the state house of New Mexico to Democratic control.

A child of veterans, she attended 13 public schools before graduating from high school, then founded a salsa business and worked as a cake decorator before going on to college and law school using at the both food stamps and student loans.

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But some people who advise Mr. Biden are concerned about running one of the federal government’s most extensive agencies, which oversees conservation and oil and gas drilling on public lands and off the country’s coast; a vast network of dams and reservoirs across the West; the Fish and Wildlife Service, a major federal science agency; the US Geological Survey; and the Office of Indian Affairs, the Office of Indian Education and the Office of Trust Fund Administration, which manage the financial assets of American Indians held in trust.

They also fear that Ms Haaland’s confirmation for a cabinet post will temporarily diminish the already narrow Democratic majority in the House – until a special election can be held in her. Democratic district.

These people support Mr. Connor’s nomination.

In an emailed statement, Mr Connor wrote: “It would be an honor to serve in the Biden-Harris administration and do the important work needed to address the country’s most pressing challenges.”

Mr. Connor worked with the agency throughout the Clinton administration, including four years as director of the Secretary’s Indian Water Rights Office, handling negotiations between the tribes and the federal government on water issues. He then worked for former Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, on land, water, energy and Native American issues before returning indoors under the Obama administration. , where he became the first Native American to hold the second position.

“It’s more about who has the qualifications than who is the public face,” said Sianna Lieb, a progressive activist who co-started the petition urging Mr. Biden to appoint a Native American as secretary of the Interior. “Having been in the interior department is a good start – qualifications are how to run the department.”

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