Montana tribal leaders react: Native American nominated to lead U.S. Department of Interior

Deb Haaland
Posted at 4:54 PM, Dec 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-18 19:10:47-05

Many Montana tribal leaders are praising President-elect Joe Biden for his selection of U.S. Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico to be the next secretary of the Department of the Interior.

If confirmed, Haaland would be the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet. She would also oversee a department that has played a central role in the federal government’s historic mistreatment of Native Americans. Haaland is a 35th-generation member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe in New Mexico. In 2018, she and Sharice Davids of Kansas became the first two Native American women ever elected to Congress.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, which is perhaps best known for maintaining the nation's parks, is also the part of the executive branch most involved in decisions affecting Native American tribes. It houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, among other agencies.

“Boy, I don’t know how to put it into words,” said State Representative Marvin Weatherwax, a Democrat from Browning, “especially in that position."

“She’s also in tune to the needs of Indian Country," said Gerald Gray Jr., chairman of the Little Shell Tribal Council. “She definitely knows who we are, what we need.”

Democrats maintained only a slim majority over Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2020 general election, which led some to raise alarm bells about the prospect of her nomination. In an interview with the Washington Post a week ago, Haaland even denied she was being vetted for the job — but then, social media got involved.

“We noticed in the last week and a half to two weeks that there was a large social push for her to become the nominee,” said Keaton Sunchild, political director with the nonprofit Western Native Voice in Billings. “It’s important to honor these treaties and these agreements that the government has with our tribes, and a lot of times, that falls into the secretary of the interior’s office.”

Like most other cabinet appointees, Haaland must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which will happen after the run-off elections in Georgia come to an end.