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Penobscot Nation Lauds Nomination Of First Native American To Presidential Cabinet

J. Scott Applewhite
Associated Press file
In this March 5, 2020, file photo Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., Native American Caucus co-chair, speaks to reporters about the 2020 Census on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Around the country, native people, including leaders of the Penobscot Nation in Maine, are rejoicing at the nomination of U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico to lead the Department of Interior.

Haaland would be the first Native American to serve in a cabinet-level position, but her selection by President-elect Joe Biden is historically significant for other reasons and many say it’s long overdue.

Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo and one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. She’s a political progressive who supports the Green New Deal and currently serves as the vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, where she’s a strong critic of oil and gas drilling. She has a history of working to balance public lands with tourism and dealing with tribal issues that are all overseen by the Interior Department.

“It’s a level of representation we’ve never had before,” says Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation.

Dana says if Haaland is confirmed, it will be both symbolic and transformational for indigenous people.

“Historically, our lands and resources and people were just decimated by colonization, so to have a powerful leader in the halls of the United States government is truly miraculous and we just all feel so proud and strong,” she says.

As interior secretary, Haaland’s jurisdiction would cover hundreds of millions of acres of public lands and oil and gas drilling sites. The department’s bureaus include the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But the agency is also responsible for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, responsible for Indian funds held in trust.

Dana says the federal government has consistently fallen short of its treaty obligations.

“I think what people don’t understand about the fiduciary responsibility of the federal government to tribal nations is that it’s not welfare, it’s not handouts, it’s not the government earmarking funds for special interest groups. These are things that were paid for in the blood of our ancestors,” she says.

Haaland’s appointment, Dana says, will mark a new beginning for a department that also has a legacy of separating native children from their families and for opening sacred land to mining and drilling.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District says she’s anxious to have Haaland’s native perspective and experience to lead an agency that has been engaged in giveaways to the fossil fuel industry for the past four years.

“I just think it’s going to be a world apart. Here’s someone who understands that we’re facing challenges around climate change — it’s a new day and she’s gonna have a very new perspective which is so important,” she says.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association is calling on Haaland to take a “balanced approach” to her job.

“Responsible energy development on federal lands is a vital part of our state’s economy,” the group said in a statement. And her nomination is expected to receive pushback from the fossil fuel industry.

As for Haaland, she said in a tweet that growing up in her mother’s Pueblo household made her fierce.

“Ill be fierce for all of us,” she said. “For our planet and all of our protected lands.”