On a chilly mid-November Saturday—after I had played phone tag with her chief of staff for half a week, and after she had met up with a couple members-elect about her Democratic Caucus vice chair bid—I finally sat down with Deb Haaland for dinner at a Thai restaurant tucked between mostly empty glass buildings in downtown D.C.
Haaland was getting harder and harder to schedule. The freshman representative from New Mexico had spent much of the past two years campaigning, first for Elizabeth Warren then for Joe Biden, kicking off phone banks, speaking at virtual events and fundraising. The congresswoman had been a team player, by all accounts, but now she was pivoting to run for a party leadership position in the House. She has since dropped that effort, but her name continues to be pushed by everyone from Republican colleagues to far-left activists for an even bigger role: a spot in Biden’s Cabinet to head up the agency that manages U.S. public lands, natural resources and Indian affairs.
If that happens, Haaland’s already trailblazing career would reach echelons never before touched by a Native American. A tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, Haaland would not only be the first Native person to oversee the Department of Interior, which handles much of the federal government’s nation-to-nation relationship with the 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribal communities, but also the first-ever Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.
In person, Haaland downplayed the momentum that could carry her from her first term in Congress to the Cabinet. “I can’t say I’ve been angling for anything,” she said as we took our seats. “It’s nice to be thought of.”
Despite her modesty, Haaland’s consideration for the role is more than just nice for one individual. It could spell a potentially significant shift on the horizon for all Native Americans, a diverse group whose long and vexed relationship with the U.S. government has made them a strategic voting bloc—as well as an unusually nimble political force.
Tribes have historically taken a pragmatic approach when it comes to party politics. A lack of attention to and media coverage of tribal issues has allowed Indian affairs to remain one of the least polarized issues. Generally, tribes appeal to Democrats when they want more spending and reforms on underfunded and mismanaged social programs, and to Republicans when they want more freedom from Uncle Sam.
Partially as a result, Native people have found representation in both parties. When Haaland and her fellow Democrat Sharice Davids, a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin who represents a Kansas City district, were elected to Congress in 2018, they joined two other American Indians already on Capitol Hill—Tom Cole, a Chickasaw, and Markwayne Mullin, a Cherokee, both Republicans from Oklahoma. Before Cole and Mullin’s time, there was Northern Cheyenne tribal member Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado congressman from 1987 to 1993 and then a senator from 1993 to 2005. In the upper chamber, he actually switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.
This summer, as calls for racial justice reached a fever pitch in America’s streets, it was a Trump-appointed Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch, who, in McGirt v. Oklahoma, wrote what is widely considered the most favorable majority decision for tribal treaty rights in at least a generation.
While Natives tend to be drawn to the Democratic Party’s commitments to racial diversity and social justice (polls suggest that Native voters preferred Biden over Donald Trump by 25 points), the GOP’s libertarian streak can, at times, find common ground with a people for whom the government has been a colonizer. In fact, it was President Richard Nixon who transformed the United States’ Indian policy from one of “termination” to its current form of self-determination. This summer, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, elected leader of the largest tribe in the country, addressed the Democratic National Convention. His vice president, Myron Lizer, spoke at the Republican convention.
That ideological balance, however, which has endured for over a generation, may not be permanent. Historically, Cabinet selections have had the effect of realigning the party preference of a racial group: Political scientists point to President Bill Clinton’s selection of Japanese American Norm Mineta for Transportation secretary as a turning point in that voting group’s behavior, shifting their lean from conservative to liberal.
If you look at county- and precinct-level data, Indian reservations, with few exceptions, are islands of Democratic blue amid oceans of Republican red. Almost every precinct on the Navajo Nation, for example, voted over 80 percent for Biden, playing an important though overlooked role in carrying Arizona for Democrats.
Native Americans have also had an outsize presence in progressive and environmental activism. Four years ago, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe erected a blockade in the path of the Dakota Access pipeline to defend its water and treaty rights. Haaland visited those encampments and even cooked for the demonstrators. In the wake of Standing Rock, a new generation of Indigenous millennials and Gen Z-ers dream of a future when the United States gives land back to Native nations. In theory, the next secretary of Interior could take steps to realize that goal.
Given these trends and this history, I asked the congresswoman—and a number of other Native leaders and political insiders—if there was any risk her appointment could unintentionally polarize tribal issues, solidifying them as a Democratic concern. Indeed, at certain moments over the past four years, such as the decision to reinstate and expedite permits for Dakota Access, it felt like President Trump might fully upend the bipartisan status quo on tribal affairs. The congresswoman and virtually everyone I consulted, however, brushed off the concern. “I think Indian Country has worked hard to be nice to everyone.” To whomever ultimately gets the job, she said, “We want to support you. And we want you to understand and know our issues.”
Ironically, it’s precisely this little-known and surprisingly bipartisan alignment on Indian affairs—an approach of necessity cultivated by tribal leaders weary of a return to this nation’s genocidal past—that has positioned Haaland as not only a potential pathbreaker, but also a unifier. Indeed, Haaland herself describes Representative Cole as a friend and mentor. “I feel like maybe him and I could be an example for how people can get along,” she told me.
Cast against this history of shrewd tribal statesmanship, nominating Haaland for Interior secretary presents a rare opportunity for Biden to not only do right by Indian Country, but also to bring more Native votes to the liberal party while advancing a consensus-building candidate.
Even without a Cabinet nomination, Haaland’s résumé has earned her a spot in American political history. She and Davids share the distinction of being the first Native women in Congress. The two make up a third of what will be the largest class of Indigenous representatives come January, thanks to the elections of Yvette Herrell, a Republican from New Mexico who is Cherokee, and Kaiali'i Kahele, a Democrat from Hawaii who is Kanaka Maoli.
But in the halls of power, Haaland brings more than just diversity. Like many Native Americans on reservations, Haaland says she knows what it’s like to live without running water and electricity, as her grandmother at Laguna Pueblo did well into the 1970s. Haaland recalls picking the worms off of cornstalks growing in Laguna fields and cooking for hundreds of guests on traditional pueblo feast days. She’s lived on food stamps and she raised her daughter as a single mother.
These experiences drive and inspire her. Over dinner, the congresswoman told me an idea she has for a screenplay about her grandfather’s all-Indian baseball team—formed because the white players in the small railroad town of Winslow, Arizona wouldn’t play with the Natives. She pulled out pictures to illustrate. One of her grandfather, Tony Toya, from the Jemez Pueblo and his ballclub. Another of her grandmother, Helen Steele, who was taken away from her family to a boarding school when she was 8 and who kept score for her husband’s team. In Haaland’s retelling of their story, the Indians from the far side of the tracks start winning so much that eventually the whites want to start playing for them.
In the past few years, the New Mexico representative has done her own fair share of winning, building a track record as a savvy and popular politician. According to her GovTrack report card, Haaland’s legislation has had more Senate companions than any other representative’s. The congresswoman has also led, co-sponsored and whipped influential and bipartisan votes for more bills than any other freshman. In an era of partisan gridlock, she has seen three of her acts signed into law: one strengthening tribal self-government, another incubating Native American small business and a third coordinating cross-agency actions to address the grisly phenomenon of Indigenous women turning up missing and murdered. To achieve all this, Haaland says she has employed a time-tested political theory. “I really try to follow my aunt’s advice—my Auntie Ann, may God rest her soul. One piece of advice that she always gave me was be nice to everyone.”
The Wednesday before last, Haaland quietly pulled out of the House Democratic Caucus vice chair race to avoid pushing the vote to a second ballot. According to insiders, Haaland didn’t want to inflame tensions among her colleagues, whose feuds have spilled into the pages of The New York Times. Her supporters also clearly wanted her to focus on what many see as the real prize.
Those supporters range across the political spectrum. A letter to the Biden transition team signed by 51 Democrats in the House and led by Rep. Raul Grijalva, the Arizonan chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, described Haaland as “eminently qualified to be Interior Secretary.” Senator Warren told me that her former campaign co-chair had “not only invaluable lived experiences, but also a top-notch command of policy.” Rep. Don Young, a Republican from Alaska, praised Haaland as a “consensus builder” in a quote from his press secretary and said that at the Department of the Interior she “would pour her passion into the job every single day.” Rep. Jared Huffman, a progressive from California who has “worked with—and against—multiple Secretaries of the Interior,” said in an email that Haaland “would hit the ground running on day one.” Congressman Cole, who has yet to publicly acknowledge the outcome of the presidential election, was nonetheless eager to praise his Native American Caucus co-chair. “We have accomplished a great deal together,” he said in a written comment, pointing to the legislation addressing murdered and missing Indigenous women as well as coronavirus relief aid for tribes. “We understand that Native American issues are not a matter of conservative versus liberal.” Congressman Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona, stole away from childcare duties for a few minutes to tout Haaland’s “understanding of water laws, mining laws and forest management” and to describe the prospect of her appointment as “awesome.”
Beyond Capitol Hill, a small army of tribal leaders, elected officials, political operatives, erstwhile bureaucrats, rambunctious environmentalists and outspoken activists were also joining the chorus of support for Haaland’s appointment. “It is long past time that a Native American person serve as Secretary of the Interior,” said more than 130 tribal leaders in a letter to President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. “Indigenous people have been caring for the land since time immemorial,” said Minnesota’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, who also wrote a letter to the Biden-Harris transition team supporting Haaland. The youth climate group Sunrise Movement and leftist PAC Justice Democrats promoted Haaland as their top pick for Interior. The National Congress of American Indians, a national body representing American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, passed a resolution “to Appoint the First Native American as Secretary of Interior.” A poll from Data for Progress, the think tank where I work, suggested 78 percent of voters would be supportive of the idea. “Just to say, [Rep. Haaland] as Interior Secretary would be a great idea, and a great turn in American history,” tweeted environmental author Bill McKibben. “She's amazing.”
“Mark Ruffalo tweeted about it yesterday,” said the congresswoman, who was making quick work of her Thai omelet soup. “But you know Mark Ruffalo. He’s a cool guy and an ally on Native issues.”
“Some people call him Mark Buffalo,” I croaked—passing off a punchline that another Native activist once used on me.
Haaland and her chief of staff, Jennifer Van der Heide, cackled. (Ruffalo’s one of the most vocal online Native allies—we don’t get many—and, among more political Indians, he’s the subject of teasing gratitude.)
“Mark Buffalo,” Haaland repeated under her breath with a chuckle, like she was trying to remember the wisecrack for later.
According to media reports, other people on Biden’s shortlist include New Mexico Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall as well as former Obama administration Interior deputy secretary Michael Connor, who is a tribal citizen of the Taos Pueblo. The potentially historic nature of Haaland’s appointment, however, has made her consideration the highest-profile. Haaland, consequently, feels the responsibility to be an ambassador for Indian Country—and to strive.
“As one of the two Native women ever elected to Congress, I feel like I should step up when I have an opportunity,” she told me. “Indian Country is invested in this and I think that will be good for them because whoever is picked, they will know that Indian Country cares about the Department of the Interior.”
If Haaland gets the call, activists from her own community will also likely put pressure on her to make America look a bit more like Indian Country—as all of it, of course, once was. I asked Haaland whether she had heard of the “Land Back” movement to return expropriated territories to Native nations. She asked me to describe it for her. After I did, Van der Heide, a Capitol Hill veteran, butted in: “Don’t tell anyone in Interior about it until she’s there,” she said, half-joking, but probably also half-serious.
We all laughed and then the congresswoman responded diplomatically. “Let’s not forget that President Obama moved more land into trust than any other president,” she said, referring to the Obama administration’s goal of bringing more than 500,000 acres back into trust, a legal status wherein the Department of the Interior holds lands for the benefit of tribes. (Obama exceeded this target.) The congresswoman also pointed to the land buyback program launched in 2012 following a series of class-action lawsuits brought by Native Americans seeking restitution as well as return of property alienated in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “I mean, the thought was that they would regain their lands and have opportunities for economic development for their communities—and I supported that,” Haaland said.
“Land Back,” like most slogans in the social media era of politics, sounds radical, but like other causes in Indian Country, the concept has, at times, attracted unlikely champions. As recently as 2015, for example, Congressman Greg Walden of Oregon, a Republican, had draft legislation to return land to the Klamath tribe. “This was all Indian land at one time,” Haaland said, matter-of-factly. “I think it’s wonderful that we have so many allies in so many places.”
But then I asked Haaland how she—and Indian Country—might feel if Biden passes her over for such a monumental opportunity.
“I mean that’s happened a lot. Hasn’t it?” she responded. “But you know what the beauty about that is? We never stop trying. I mean how many Native women before me had tried to run for Congress and weren’t successful?” She continued: “I just think that we can always have hope. This is our land. We’re not going anywhere … And I’ll never stop trying either.”/ Politico