Haaland confirmation draws praise from Navajo leadership, state groups debate approval

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Then U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, speaks on April 14, 2019, while visiting Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

FARMINGTON — Moments after the U.S. Senate confirmed Deb Haaland as Interior secretary, Navajo Nation leaders commended the historic decision while heads of statewide groups said they will watch her leadership on energy development.

The Senate voted 51-40 on March 15 to confirm Haaland, who is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called the day "unprecedented" and "monumental."

"Words cannot express how overjoyed and proud we are to see one of our own confirmed to serve in this high-level position. …Today's historic confirmation sets us on a better path to righting the wrongs of the past with the federal government and inspires hope in our people, especially our young people. It gives us a seat at the table to offer a new and different perspective from a person that has experienced the reality of adversities and challenges of growing up on what federal officials refer to as 'Indian reservations,'" Nez said.

The tribe's vice president, Myron Lizer, congratulated Haaland and said he looks forward to working with her and other federal partners to address challenges in Indian Country.

"To have one of our Native American people in this prestigious position is heartwarming and long overdue," Lizer said.

Deb Haaland, then chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, pays a visit to Shiprock on Oct. 21, 2016 during a party event at the Shiprock Chapter house.

Haaland's confirmation is another in a first for the New Mexico Democrat who was one of the first two Native American women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.

Her service in that chamber of Congress will be missed, Speaker Seth Damon said.

"Her voice in Congress will be missed, but under the Biden-Harris administration, we look forward to a new approach by the federal government to listening directly to the Navajo people and all tribal communities," Damon said.

In January, council Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton introduced legislation to have the Navajo Nation support Haaland's nomination.

The bill was tabled by the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee on Feb. 25 and dropped by Charles-Newton on March 11 because it became moot with the date for the Senate's vote drawing near.

"It is certainly a win-win for Indian Country and an honor to know that such an important position is being headed, not only by an American Indian but an American Indian woman, who has lived the life that many of us have lived," she said.

The two-day confirmation hearing for Haaland conducted by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee became contentious over the Biden administration's plan for energy and the environment and her previous statements that opposed fossil fuel extraction.

The oil and gas industry contribute approximately $16.6 billion in annual economic activity and accounts for 33% of the state's annual budget, according to the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

Ryan Flynn, the association's president, said the group looks forward to working to an engaging and productive working relationship with the Interior Department and its agencies.

"The secretary set an encouraging tone of collaboration and partnership in her confirmation hearings, promising to work with all stakeholders to develop and safeguard America's vast natural resources. …We are eager to do our part to proactively combat climate change and ensure our state and nation continues to be a leader in the safe, responsible production of oil and natural gas," Flynn said.

Steve Pearce, the Republican Party of New Mexico's chairman, called the Senate vote "a bittersweet moment" for the state because it elevates a New Mexican in the presidential Cabinet but the "radical position" held by Haaland will hurt the state's energy sector.

"Our oil and gas industry is vital to our state and its financial health, and Haaland has made it clear she opposes fracking, the oil and gas industry and supports the Green New Deal," Pearce said. "As Interior secretary her choices will tear apart this industry and hurt working families across the state, as she sides with President Biden's leftist energy agenda."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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