PIERRE, S.D. — Tribal organizers in South Dakota are calling on their two U.S. senators to vote to confirm New Mexico congresswoman Deb Haaland to be the first Indigenous secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
"In our consultation and our conversations, they've (Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds) have always empathized with the lack of (federal) funding and the ... plight Native communities face in South Dakota," said Kellen Returns From Scout, budget and finance director for the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association. "Well, here's a real opportunity for them to put their money where their mouth is."
After Haaland cleared a contentious hearing last week before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote soon on whether to confirm Haaland's nomination to run the sprawling federal agency which manages a fifth of the nation's land and resources, as well as oversees the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Under the Trump administration, the DOI was run by David Bernhardt, a former energy lawyer, and former Montana Republican congressman Ryan Zinke, who pushed to deregulate migratory bird protections and open up large tracts of Bear's Ears National Monument in Utah for drilling and mining.
Under Zinke, federal officials also undertook a reorganization of the BIA, a reorganization that Kellen Returns from Scout said was not well-received by tribal citizens.
He said the reorganization and shrinking of Bear's Ears — which he framed as a religious liberty issue — "accumulated into this broader narrative that there was just no goodwill" with the previous administration.
President Joe Biden's selection of Haaland, a Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico and former tribal administrator, was largely cheered by liberals who saw the choice as historic and a chance to reset the relationship. As an enrolled Laguna Pueblo, Haaland would be the first Native American to hold a cabinet secretary position for a U.S. president.
But Haaland, who attended protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, faced tough questioning last week from conservative senators, many of whom worried she might oppose drilling and energy production.
During the hearing, North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven pressed Haaland if she still opposed DAPL, noting the pipeline's shuttering may lead to job losses.
"If something shuts down, I understand that jobs can be lost," said Haaland, who defended her decision to, in her words, "stand with the water protectors."
On Monday, Rounds' spokesman issued a statement to Forum News Service saying he's "thoroughly vetting" the record of Haaland and calling her nomination "historic."
"Last week, I had an opportunity to visit with Congresswoman Haaland on the phone about issues critical to South Dakota, in particular, matters that impact the Native American community in our state," said the statement.
Thune's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Last month, former Democratic senators from the Dakotas, Tom Daschle and Byron Dorgan, both signed an op-ed calling on the Senate to confirm Haaland.
"Rep. Haaland will bring a Westerner's perspective and familiarity to the energy issues facing the Department of the Interior," wrote Daschle and Dorgan.
In South Dakota, tribal advocates who spoke with FNS said they've been closely watching Haaland's confirmation battle.
"Deb Haaland's nomination is not only good for Indian Country, it's good for our resources and land," said Cante Heart, a Rapid City-based organizer and field director with the South Dakota Democratic Party.
Nine tribal nations holding treaties with the federal government reside entirely or partially within the boundaries of South Dakota. Last month, a number of indigenous groups, including the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association, which represents tribes in the Dakotas and Nebraska, endorsed Haaland.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., signaled his intention to vote for Haaland.