BISMARCK — Many North Dakotans are split over the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland to head the U.S. Department of Interior, with some backing her passion for equality and Indigenous rights and others opposing her views on energy and the environment.
The U.S. Senate could make history on Monday, March 15, by confirming Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, as the next interior secretary and the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency. The sprawling department includes the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many of the agencies that collaborate with the country's 574 federally-recognized tribal nations.
Haaland, a citizen of Laguna Pueblo, has garnered enough support from senators to make her confirmation likely, with the Senate Energy Committee voting 11-9 in favor of her leading the Department of Interior. Only one Republican joined the committee's 10 Democrats in their support of her.
During her confirmation hearing last month, Republican senators aggressively questioned Haaland about her views on fracking, oil pipelines and the energy sector as a whole. Haaland told them she would support President Joe Biden's wide-sweeping plans to combat climate change, but she would make sure to strike a balance between pursuing Biden's climate agenda and relying on fossil fuels.
“There’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come. I know how important oil and gas revenues are to fund critical services,” Haaland said during her hearing. “But we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating, and our climate challenge must be addressed."
Many Native Americans back her confirmation as interior secretary — a position that oversees agencies that work with tribal nations, like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education — and many agree that having someone in a position of power who understands them is long overdue.
Mark Fox, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, said it's “relieving” to have a Native American in line for a cabinet position. “It’s a really good thing for Indian Country, for tribal nations to get representation or have somebody familiar with Indian Country at that level,” Fox said.
An estimated 42,700 North Dakotans identify as Native American or Alaska Native, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
As a U.S. representative, Haaland has been a leading voice on issues like the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, tribal sovereignty and respecting treaty rights.
Her confirmation hearing raised questions of bias, with some saying senators would not have asked such pointed questions if she was not a Native woman. One tribal chairwoman told The Associated Press that if anyone else was being questioned for the position, “they would not be subjected to being held accountable for their ethnicity.”
The Department of Interior manages an array of lands in North Dakota. Its jurisdiction includes the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, land along some of the Missouri River, portions of western North Dakota counties, and any federal mineral resources, including those beneath the five American Indian reservations with which the state shares borders, said Mike Humann, North Dakota's surface division director within the state's Department of Trust Lands.
Because the state's grasslands fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's jurisdiction and because much of North Dakota is private land, the Department of Interior does not hold a significant amount of assets in the state, Humann said.
Both of North Dakota's Republican U.S. senators, John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, oppose Haaland's confirmation.
At her confirmation hearing, Hoeven cited concerns about her "refusal to recuse herself from matters related to the Dakota Access Pipeline." Hoeven questioned her about her views on a possible shut down of the pipeline that carries North Dakota oil to market and said he was concerned that she attended some of the DAPL protests back in 2016.
“I did go to stand with the water protectors,” Haaland told Hoeven. “The reason I did that is because I agreed with the tribe that they felt they weren’t consulted in the best way. I know that tribal consultation is important and that is the reason I was there.”
If confirmed, it's unclear how much control, if any, she would have over DAPL, as the Department of Interior is not involved in the pipeline's permits to operate.
Cramer said Haaland’s views are “radical and out of touch with North Dakotans."
"She is an environmental extremist who would rather lock up our public lands than manage and utilize them to the benefit of the public," Cramer said in a statement.
Alexandra Klass, an energy resources and environmental law professor at the University of Minnesota, said it's not surprising that Republican senators who represent states with energy resources would be opposed to confirming Haaland.
Haaland's reputation as an active proponent for the environment makes her an unsavory candidate for many Republican senators, Klass said, noting that she thinks Haaland, as secretary, could help the nation transition to cleaner energy and create clean energy jobs.
If confirmed, Haaland said she will prioritize consulting with stakeholders before decisions are made and hear all viewpoints about an issue.
"It's difficult to not feel obligated to protect this land, and I feel that every Indigenous person in this country understands that," Haaland said at her confirmation hearing.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.