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Mountain West Indigenous Leaders Back Haaland As GOP Lawmakers Oppose Confirmation

If confirmed by the Senate, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland will be the nation's first Indigenous cabinet secretary.
Courtesy Office of U.S. House Rep. Deb Haaland
If confirmed by the Senate, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland will be the nation's first Indigenous cabinet secretary.

New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland is poised to become our nation's first Indigenous cabinet secretary. As some prominent Mountain West lawmakers oppose her confirmation to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior, many of their Indigenous constituents are pushing back.

House Republicans from Montana and Colorado signed onto a letterurging President Joe Biden to withdraw Haaland's nomination. Republican Sen. John Barrasso has indicatedthat he may vote against her confirmation, citing what he called "radical" views on natural resource management. Montana Sen. Steve Daines, also a Republican, has gone one step further, announcing his intention to "block" her confirmation.

"I'm deeply concerned with the Congresswoman's support on several radical issues that will hurt Montana, our way of life, our jobs and rural America, including her support for the Green New Deal and President Biden's oil and gas moratorium, as well as her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline," Daines wrote in a statementon Friday.

Daines and Barrasso sit on the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which will soon take up Haaland's nomination. Their "no" votes could stall the process, but are unlikely to succeed in blocking her confirmation.

Gerald Gray is chairman of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa and of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, which represents tribes in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. He isn't giving the attempt much oxygen.

"Oh, that's just talk. Political speak. That's what that is," Gray said of Daines' opposition. "I wish [Daines would] reconsider, but that's how politics is these days. And the partisanship is getting old."  

According to Gray, Daines reached out to the Little Shell tribal government to share his concerns about Haaland's environmental record before announcing he would vote against her confirmation. Gray said Montana Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale did not extend the same courtesy before asking Biden to withdraw her nomination."That was really disappointing, because he didn't even reach out to Indian Country," Gray said. "We're your constituents, aren't we? Shouldn't we be consulted?"

But Daines' announcement has disappointed many of his Indigenous constituents, who make up a key voting block in Montana. Ta'jin Perez is deputy director of Western Native Voice, a non-partisan group that advocates for Indigenous people in the state.

"I think that Sen. Daines, while trying to woo the Native vote, forgets once he's in Washington the importance of having a strong relationship between tribes and the federal government," Perez said. "This is an opportunity to really put some teeth behind campaign promises to protect tribal sovereignty."

Perez said Haaland's confirmation would mark a "potential sea change" in the relationship between tribal nations and the federal government, and that concerns about Haaland's record on environmental and climate change policy are overblown.

"To just see her as a puppet, or sort of an agenda, is both inappropriate and doesn't take into account how dynamic this individual is," he said.

Wyoming state Rep. Andi Clifford agrees. She's a citizen of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and represents much of the Wind River Reservation.

"The escalating assaults on Haaland's nomination brings attention to the fact that she, as one of the first Indigenous female U.S. representatives, still faces systemic racism," Clifford said.

She urged Barrasso to reverse course, calling the attempt to cast Haaland as a "radical" on climate change policy "uncalled for."

"And I don't think that's fair to her when you look at her history of working across the aisle, and of truly representing people and not special interests or agendas," Clifford said.

According to Clifford, Haaland has broad and enthusiastic support among Indigenous people in Wyoming, even while the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribal economies rely heavily on oil and gas production. A "no" vote from Barrasso could damage his relationship with those constituents, a relationship that Clifford said is already strained.

"What I see is that more Indigenous people are becoming engaged and participating in political processes that we've never been welcomed to participate in in the past," Clifford said. "And when we get more diverse representation at the table, people get uncomfortable with that."

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has not yet scheduled a hearing to begin Haaland's confirmation process, which will end with a simple majority vote in the entire Senate. With or without support from Daines and Barrasso, Haaland likely has the votes to join Biden's cabinet.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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