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Biden taps Deb Haaland to be first Native American interior secretary

Democrats push for historic Cabinet pick
House Democrats pushing for Rep. Debra Haaland to be first Native American Cabinet secretary 10:30

President-elect Joe Biden has chosen New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland to head the Interior Department, which would make her the first Native American to lead the agency that oversees the country's natural resources and public and tribal lands if she is confirmed by the Senate.

Tribal leaders and organizers had pushed Mr. Biden to choose Haaland, a member of Pueblo of Laguna, a tribe that has lived on the land that is now New Mexico for eight centuries. The Interior Department has long had a contentious relationship with the 574 federally recognized tribes, and Haaland's nomination indicates that the Biden administration is willing to listen and address the concerns of Indigenous people.

Haaland said in a statement on Thursday that a "voice" like hers "has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior."

"It's profound to think about the history of this country's policies to exterminate Native Americans and the resilience of our ancestors that gave me a place here today," Haaland said. "This historic moment will not go by without the acknowledgment of the many people who have believed in me over the years and have had the confidence in me for this position."

Deb Haaland seen in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 1, 2018. MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

If confirmed as interior secretary, Haaland will be contending with policies from the Trump administration that have complicated the federal government's relationship with tribes, like removing protections from tribal sites at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and allowing oil drillers into Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuges.

Although she was only elected to Congress in 2018, Haaland's record on climate change has encouraged activists. She has been a fierce supporter of the Green New Deal, a comprehensive progressive plan to combat climate change, and has railed against the Trump administration's rollback of environmental regulations.

Haaland's nomination was supported by a broad coalition of tribal leaders, celebrities, climate activists and other members of Congress.

"She has been a champion for our environment and public lands and has worked tirelessly to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and Indian tribes," more than 50 House members wrote in a letter to Biden last month.

This month, in another letter, over 120 tribal leaders urged the president-elect to nominate Haaland, saying "it is long past time that a Native American person serve as Secretary of the Interior."

"Representative Haaland has championed the environment, helped lead efforts to address climate change, and worked to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between our Tribes and the United States — all issues within the Department of the Interior's responsibilities," the letter obtained by CBS News said.

If Haaland, first term congresswoman reelected in November vacates her seat, it would tighten the already thin majority Democrats have in the House until there is a special election to replace her in the reliably Democratic district. But House Democratic leaders signed off on her nomination publicly and in private conversations with the Biden-Harris transition team on Wednesday, according to one of the people familiar with the decision.

The Interior Department oversees 500 million acres of federal lands, roughly one-fifth of the U.S., including 62 national parks.

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