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Indigenous Leaders Back Haaland For Interior Secretary; Daines To Oppose

Deb Haaland smiles for an official headshot wearing a dark grey suit jacket and a statement of a metal necklace.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM)

The U.S. Senate will consider Rep. Deb Haaland as the next U.S. Secretary of the Interior Tuesday morning. Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale oppose the New Mexican Congresswoman’s confirmation. But many Native American leaders and representatives are eager for Haaland’s confirmation.

Deb Haaland is poised to become the first Native American Secretary of the Interior. If confirmed, Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, will lead the federal department in charge of tribal law enforcement and education, national parks, wildlife services and the Bureau of Land Management.

Native American legislators in Montana say they’re excited for someone who has lived experience with these federal programs to lead them.

"This is a woman that's very intelligent. She's got a law degree. She is from a reservation," says Montana state Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, a member of the Blackfeet Nation.

"No doubt she has a good upbringing from her elders, from her parents, from her grandparents about the true nature of how to respect the land and the cultural resources that's on the land," says state Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder.

"Well, I think she's good. I think that she’ll do a great job. She's someone that can build strong relations between tribes and governments," says Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, a member of the Blackfeet Nation.

Webber says Haaland’s Indigenous identity gives her the necessary perspective to head the Interior.

"She's looking at it from a different viewpoint. Instead of looking at it from the outside in, she's looking at it from the inside out."

Ahead of Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, Webber, along with every other Democratic member of the Montana Legislature’s American Indian Caucus, joined Montana tribal leaders and over 500 environmental groups calling for the U.S. Senate to confirm Haaland. The Global Indigenous Council and Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council erected billboards in Great Falls and Billings urging citizens to support Haaland.

Montana’s Indian Caucus also wrote a stern letter condemning Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale’s opposition to Haaland’s nomination.

Daines has come out as one of Haaland’s strongest opponents, saying she supports several “radical issues” and that he will seek to block Haaland’s confirmation unless his concerns about her support for the Green New Deal, an oil and gas moratorium and her opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline are addressed.

Daines was not made available for an interview for this story.

In a statement to the Great Falls Tribune about the Montana American Indian Caucus letter, Rosendale, who is not involved in Senate hearings, wrote, “These attempts to conceal her outrageous radical views on public policy under a veil of identity politics are pathetic.”

A spokesman for Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said the Senator is planning to make a decision on how he’ll vote after attending Haaland’s hearing.

Gerald Gray, chairman of the Little Shell Tribe, wants Montana’s representatives to work across the aisle with one another for what’s best for Montana as a whole.

"It's really disheartening to see that kind of stuff. We need to work together and we just can't keep this constant rhetoric up of, ‘My party is better than your party.’ Gosh, that’s enough of this!"

Gray says he thinks it’s great that Rep. Haaland has been nominated. He says he hopes she will make drastic administrative changes to tribal law enforcement, education and the application process for fee-to-trust land. Currently, Gray says the application process that allows tribes to buy back land that the government holds in trust usually takes a minimum of four years.

"It takes tribes forever to get land turned in from fee-to-trust. Right? That needs to be done. It's not been done under any administration, Republican or Democrat. When I think of Deb coming in, I think she understands that process much more than any previous Secretary of the Interior," Gray says.

Gray says he expects Rep. Haaland will carefully research federal oil and gas leases and the protection of sacred land sites.

"There's a fine line and there's going to be give and take, but we gotta be responsible stewards of this land," Gray says.

Rep. Windy Boy says the opposition from Daines and Rosendale is insulting as neither spoke against the previous administration’s Interior Secretary nomination.

Windy Boy, a Chippewa Cree tribal member, says a majority of what the Department of Interior does impacts the daily lives of Native Americans.

"My day job is a tribal historic preservation officer. My funding comes from the National Park Service, for example. Pretty much the whole Interior’s going to have something come back on Indian Country and I'm not being biased. That's the explanation, the best explanation I can say of why she is good for the job," Windy Boy says.

Rep. Running Wolf says he thinks Haaland’s understanding of the justice system and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s crisis, will be important for her oversight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But Running Wolf does see one downside if Haaland is confirmed.

"The only downfall that I had about her getting nominated was losing that House Native American seat," Running Wolf says.

Running Wolf says he hopes another Native American woman will replace her in Congress.

Rep. Haaland’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday morning.

Kaitlyn Nicholas is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America Indigenous affairs reporter.

Kaitlyn Nicholas covers tribal news in Montana.