The Senate confirmation proceedings for President Joe Biden’s pick to head the U.S. Department of the Interior began Tuesday. Democratic Congresswoman Debra Haaland (NM-01), if confirmed, will make history as the first Native American member of the Cabinet. It's also particularly important that she will likely be the leader of a department with a long record of mistreatment of Native people. Many tribal leaders are watching Haaland and the new Biden administration to see if they’ll implement changes in the federal government’s relationship with Native peoples.
Aaron Payment, chairperson for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, says Haaland is uniquely qualified for the job. Before representing New Mexico in Congress, she previously served as a tribal administrator, Payment explains.
“I've read a lot of the back-and-forth and comments from some senators who call into question her qualifications. And I find that to be very paternalistic and a little misogynistic,” he says. “Tribal administrators have to understand state, local, and federal laws, regulations, and policies, and be adept at applying for federal grants and know how to manage those grants, and be subject to audits. And so that experience transcends most of what the executive-level appointments in any presidential administration have.”
Haaland’s nomination is historic because the U.S. government has never had a Native American appointee at the Cabinet level.
“When you think about that for a second, that's really a tragedy in and of itself, because, you know, we're going on 260 or more years as a country, and we never saw fit to see the talent that is right in front of us,” he says. “So Indian Country is celebrating her nomination, and we are resolute to support her nomination.”
Payment says tribal leaders are looking to the Biden-Harris Administration to bring about concrete shifts in how the federal government interacts with tribal nations. He says the administration’s recent memorandum on tribal consultation, which emphasizes that the U.S. government will work in tandem with tribes on policy decisions, signals a good start.
“We say that we prepaid with the 500 million acres of land in promise for health, education, and social welfare in perpetuity,” Payment says. “Our funding should be mandatory, because we prepaid.”
Payment says he thinks the federal government’s new policy on consultation with tribes indicates a “new era."
“Tribal leaders all across the country need to pay close attention to those notices, and they need to get on those calls, because if you don't exercise your voice, you abandon your ancestors and your future generations. And if we're not speaking up, people won’t hear us," he says.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.