Could Biden Name an Indigenous Secretary of the Interior? Environmental Groups are Hoping He Will.

But Native American and climate activists pushing Indigenous women for the Cabinet face challenges. First among them? Winning the election.

Oct 22, 2020
Presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks during a Voter Mobilization event at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina on Oct. 18, 2020. Credit: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks during a Voter Mobilization event at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina on Oct. 18, 2020. Credit: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Although the November election is still weeks away, Democrats are already thinking about the makeup of the new administration they hope to see in 2021.

Many environmental activists know that they've lost the battle when it comes to getting Biden fully on board with the Green New Deal and a fracking ban. But they say they hope to influence the selection of the White House's next top-ranking officials, to advance more aggressive climate policy.

Julian Noisecat, an Indigenous activist and journalist who is vice president of policy and strategy at the progressive think tank Data for Progress, said that if he is elected, Biden's choices for staffing his administration could signal a commitment to the bold climate action that has animated a "new and energized generation of Democrats."

Already, the Biden campaign is reportedly considering candidates for Cabinet posts that are racially and gender-diverse. That could bolster the selection prospects for progressive climate leaders who want to push moderate policies closer to what some environmentalists believe climate science and environmental justice demand. 

It also provides some encouragement for climate and Native American groups who have called for Biden to appoint the first Indigenous leader for the Department of the Interior, an appointment that would represent a monumental shift. The Interior Department is responsible for conserving and managing the nation's natural resources and honoring its commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives and affiliated island communities. The agency includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which administers and manages over 55 million acres of land held in trust for Native Americans by the federal government, and the Bureau of Indian Education. Both bureaus have had fraught relationships with the Indigenous peoples they are meant to serve.

Given the connection between environmental and Indigenous issues, having a Native American Secretary of the Interior for the first time in the department's roughly 170-year-long history would also be potentially transformative in terms of climate policy. 

Kyle Whyte, a professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, said that, especially after the Trump Administration's efforts to roll back environmental regulations, having an Indigenous Secretary "would go miles in terms of improving the situation of Native people, as well as the climate crisis." 

A Big Stake in Climate Policy, But Uncertain Road to a Cabinet Post that Leads It

Though Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by fossil fuel development and climate change, they often have limited say over the energy development affecting their lands.

Native American reservations comprise only 2 percent of the nation's land, but may hold up to one-fifth of its known natural gas and oil reserves. That tends to make Indigenous lands prime targets for oil and gas development, and the lack of alternative economic opportunities leaves many tribes hobbled in their interactions with the industry. 

Climate change is having an outsized impact on those lands. For instance, 40 percent of federally recognized tribes in the United States live in Alaska Native communities, where warming is occurring at roughly twice the average rate of the rest of the planet—melting the ground some villages are built on and altering local populations' way of life.

"Tribes have been way out ahead on issues of climate and environmental justice," said Noisecat, invoking the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests. "But when it comes time to think about what it looks like to lead the federal government, we're often again forgotten."

The American public, however, is starting to remember. 

Noisecat pointed to a survey of more than 1,000 likely voters from both parties conducted in September by Data for Progress. The survey found that 75 percent of the respondents would support a Native American nominee for Secretary of the Interior. 

Such a nomination is in keeping with the "tremendous amount of leadership" Biden showed by selecting an Asian and Black woman as his running mate, said DNC Native American Caucus Chair Rion Ramirez.

The Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations includes appointing Native Americans to high-level government positions. But while public opinion and Biden's campaign commitments seem to favor the prospect, the practical path to appointing a first-ever Indigenous Cabinet member may prove difficult.

"I think it's going to take some strong political will on the part of Biden and Harris and the people who will be working with them to successfully traverse getting an Indigenous person to be Secretary of the Interior," said Patrick Shea, who served as the director of the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of the Interior, under the Clinton Administration. 

Shea said he supported the idea, but "whether it will happen or not is an open question." In part, he suggested, that's because Indigenous people may be less prone than other Cabinet hopefuls to join the rush of people vying for the attention of the winning presidential candidate and promoting themselves for jobs in the new administration. 

The Biden campaign declined to comment on the possibility of nominating the first Indigenous Cabinet member. 

"The Biden-Harris Transition team is not making any personnel decisions pre-election," said a Biden transition spokesperson who, nonetheless, added "diversity of ideology and background is a core value of the transition." 

"I think it would be an amazing nod to Tribal communities to have a Cabinet-level position, but we're not at that point yet," said Clara Pratte, the Biden campaign's Tribal engagement director, who added, "Those would be great discussions to have when we know we've won." 

Indigenous Women Seen as Possible Picks for Interior

Among the names Noisecat at Data for Progress has floated for the position is New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who made history as one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress during the "blue wave" in 2018. 

Since her election, Haaland has defined herself as a staunch advocate for Indigenous rights and a progressive climate champion. She has supported the Green New Deal, defended public lands from oil and gas development and recently introduced the THRIVE act to address the overlapping Covid-19, economic and climate crises. 

Haaland currently chairs the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, and is the vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

"She's somebody who's name just makes a lot of sense when you consider the qualifications that you have to bring to the table," said Bryan Newland, an attorney with an Indian law-focused firm and a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwe) in northern Michigan. 

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) at the Back the Thrive Agenda press conference at the Longworth Office Building on Sept. 10, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) at the Back the Thrive Agenda press conference at the Longworth Office Building on Sept. 10, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network

Citing Haaland's "progressive record on environmental justice," Noisecat said Haaland represented "the kind of appointment that could get a lot of people—progressives, environmentalists, people of color, tribes—excited."

Contrary to Biden, Haaland has said she supports a ban on fracking.

Along with having no ties to the fossil fuel industry, that firm anti-fracking commitment is among the top criteria that Natalie Mebane, associate director of U.S. policy at 350 Action, said she'd look for in a Biden Cabinet nominee.

Mebane said 350 Action was not endorsing any candidates for Cabinet at this time, but made clear it wants to see a Secretary of the Interior who shares the organization's commitment to keeping fossil fuels in the ground and protecting public lands from extractive industry.

Haaland's focus on equity in climate action also aligns with the activist group Sunrise Movement's criteria for their support of Biden's Cabinet picks which, Sunrise organizer Lauren Maunus said, include addressing economic and racial inequality. 

Haaland, asked about being considered for the position, said, "My priority right now is doing everything I can to ensure we elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris." 

Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation and National Congress of American Indians, has also been suggested by Data for Progress for Secretary of the Interior. 

Sharp, who has prioritized climate change in those roles, said in an email that she'd be "flattered by any consideration for Secretary of the Interior," but has "never considered leaving my post as President of the Quinault Indian Nation and my duties to my own people." 

Given her experience as the solicitor for the Department of the Interior under the Obama Administration and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, Hilary Tompkins might prove another strong candidate. Tompkins' work as an environmental lawyer at the international firm Hogan Lovells focuses on public lands, natural resources and Native American affairs. 

But even those excited by the possibility for an Indigenous woman to be Secretary of the Interior are not taking a Biden victory for granted. 

Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, said the group was "not speculating about specific Cabinet picks." 

Instead, from now until Election Day, Sittenfeld said, the organization is "laser-focused...on ensuring that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and other environmental champions up and down the ballot and all across the country win on Nov. 3."

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the academic affiliation of Kyle Whyte. He is a professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan, not Michigan State. 

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