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For Native Americans, Rep. Haaland's Nomination Signals A Relationship Shift

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President-elect Biden has announced he'll nominate Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico to be secretary of the interior. If confirmed, she would be the country's first Indigenous cabinet secretary. And as Savannah Maher of the Mountain West News Bureau reports from Albuquerque, many predict a shift in the relationship between tribes and the federal government.

SAVANNAH MAHER, BYLINE: Deb Haaland became one of the first Indigenous women ever elected to the U.S. Congress in 2018. Soon after, she paid a visit to her constituents at the Pueblo of Sandia just outside of Albuquerque. Tribal member Stephine Poston was there.

STEPHINE POSTON: She came to the Pueblo for one of our feast days. And the young girls, a couple of them were following her around. And she stopped to talk to them.

MAHER: Poston says Haaland was a celebrity to those girls, but she didn't act like one.

POSTON: She's just that person who will stop and see you.

MAHER: And Poston says that's how Indigenous people have been feeling since Haaland was named to lead the Department of the Interior - seen.

POSTON: Indian Country has shouted from the valleys, from the mountaintops that it's time. It's overdue.

MAHER: Haaland comes from the Pueblos of Laguna and Jemez. If she's confirmed by the Senate, she'll be running the department that works most closely with tribal governments.

JOHN ECHOHAWK: Right. It's a historic event.

MAHER: John EchoHawk heads up the Native American Rights Fund. The nonprofit offers legal services to tribes. He says federal officials typically lack an understanding of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights regardless of their political party.

ECHOHAWK: Well, that lack of knowledge of Indian law and policy and history is really the biggest problem that our people face.

MAHER: But he says tribal leaders won't have to wait for Haaland to get up to speed. In law school, she specialized in tribal law.

ECHOHAWK: Makes all the difference in the world - she thoroughly understands these issues, thoroughly. And she knows what it means to tribes and tribal members to have good decisions made regarding their rights.

MAHER: EchoHawk says many tribes are currently locked in battles over the status of their land or over the protection of their sacred sites. Haaland has been vocal about these issues as vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. Here she is back in February of this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEB HAALAND: But a sacred site that's been blasted, it can never be made whole again. I want you to understand that.

MAHER: She asked a representative from President Trump's Interior Department how he can sleep at night after his department authorized controlled blasting in an area sacred to the Tohono Oʼodham nation in southern Arizona to make way for the border wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAALAND: The damage that this administration is doing to this area, it's irreparable. And you didn't even ask. Nobody asked permission of these people to do any of that.

MAHER: Tribal leaders are ready to hold her to her word about tribal consultation, including Northern Arapaho Chairman Jordan Dresser.

JORDAN DRESSER: I'm just really excited for her.

MAHER: Dresser heard the news just after his nation received its first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine.

DRESSER: It just feels like another glimmer of hope for us.

MAHER: But Dresser says her nomination brings mixed emotions. That's because his tribe relies heavily on oil and gas revenues. Haaland is a supporter of the Green New Deal and is opposed to many of the fossil fuel industry's policies.

DRESSER: A lot of tribes that do rely on oil, gas, you know, it could be almost seen as a gamble.

MAHER: But Dresser also sees her appointment as an opportunity to help tribes transition into alternative energy and as an opportunity for tribal youth to find inspiration.

DRESSER: If the kids see somebody who looks like them and sounds like them in certain positions, then they know it's a possibility.

MAHER: And a new possibility for U.S. tribal relations. For NPR News, I'm Savannah Maher in Albuquerque. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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