For weeks, leaders of Native American tribes all over the country have been urging President-elect Joe Biden to pick Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to be his interior secretary. So have dozens of members of Congress, including Republicans.
But for some reason, some of Biden’s advisers have begun anonymously planting the idea in news stories that the Native American congresswoman, who chairs a House subcommittee with oversight of the Interior Department, is not qualified. What’s also puzzling is that these sources say a better candidate is a lesser-known man who is also Native, Michael Connor, despite dozens of tribal leaders telling Biden, publicly and privately, that they back Haaland.
“But her lack of policy experience worries some Biden advisers, who have suggested another Native American candidate: Michael L. Connor, a deputy interior secretary in the Obama administration, whose experience is unquestioned,” reads a New York Times piece in late November.
“But many of Mr. Biden’s advisers fear that she lacks the experience to manage the sprawling complex agency,” reads a second New York Times piece on Thursday.
Another anonymous “conservation source” told The Hill on Wednesday that Haaland’s support by progressive groups could complicate her Senate confirmation. This person suggested Haaland’s support for the Green New Deal, a legislative plan aimed at addressing climate change and economic inequality, could cause problems.
The anonymous slights against Haaland haven’t gone unnoticed by her supporters, who say they are angry and confused to see her being belittled by people in Biden’s orbit. Some prominent Native women have noted the sexism of the anonymous comments, per reporter Julian Brave Noisecat. Some of Haaland’s supporters made similar suggestions to HuffPost privately; others were willing to go public with their frustrations.
“Of course it’s offensive to say she’s not qualified,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Not only is Haaland equipped for the job, he said, but she embodies the kind of diversity and representation in government that Biden says he wants. It would be a seismic shift to put a Native American woman at the helm of the federal agency that oversees public lands ― the same lands from which Indigenous people were previously forcibly removed by the U.S. government.
It would also be historic: The U.S. has never had any Indigenous Cabinet secretaries.
“I think those individuals being anonymous should think that through for themselves, because by going after this person, you’re standing in the way of history,” Grijalva said. “We’re not going to get it again. She’s real. She’s authentic. She’s legitimate. And she should have it.”
He added, “Anything less than that, I think, is really going to create some blowback.”
Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican tribe in Wisconsin, lamented the “shroud of elusiveness” over the anonymous sources criticizing Haaland and floating Connor’s name instead. What’s odd about Connor suddenly being pushed, she said, is that so many tribal leaders are united behind Haaland while Connor’s name hasn’t even come up.
“If there are truly concerns, in the spirit of transparency, they should put them forward. I don’t know what the issues would be,” she said. “We’ve lived the past four years in this kind of shroud. Why would you start a new transition that way?”
Holsey is one of 150 tribal leaders who privately wrote to Biden last week in support of Haaland for interior secretary. HuffPost obtained a copy of the letter and agreed to only excerpt from it.
“Rep. Haaland has championed the environment, helped lead efforts to address climate change, and worked to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between our Tribes and the United States – all issues within the Department of the Interior’s responsibilities,” reads the letter. “At every turn, she has been a leading voice against the Trump Administration’s work to roll back environmental protections ... She has also fought the Trump Administration’s efforts to cut programs that benefit tribal communities.”
It concludes, “As the leaders of sovereign tribal nations, we believe it is long past time that a Native American person serve as Secretary of the Interior. Further, we believe that Congresswoman Deb Haaland is ready to serve as Secretary.”
Adding to the confusion over the anonymous attacks on Haaland, Biden last week offered the interior secretary job to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has relatively little experience with the public lands and energy issues the Interior Department focuses on. Grisham turned down the offer, which already made no sense but also would have pitted her against Haaland and Udall, both colleagues from New Mexico.
One source who works closely with tribal leaders on federal strategy speculated there are people on Biden’s transition team who have worked with Connor in the past, and they are trying to push “a message of there being an alternative Native American” in an effort to help their former colleague get the Interior post.
“This is not the will of the tribes who have thrown their weight heavily behind Deb Haaland, who is highly qualified,” said this source, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “This is an age-old classic of divide and conquer where you are supposedly working with tribes but, at the end of the day, you do the thing you want to do.”
“We’ve lived the past four years in this kind of shroud. Why would you start a new transition that way?”
A spokesperson for Biden’s transition team said he could not confirm or deny that Haaland is under consideration for the Interior post (she is, but they have to say this), but whoever is anonymously criticizing Haaland is not someone authorized to speak for Biden’s team.
“No one is trying to discount Deb Haaland,” he said.
A Haaland spokesperson declined comment.
Connor, who currently works for the international law firm WilmerHale, did not respond to a request for comment.
Another member of Biden’s transition team emphasized that the team has already been meeting with dozens of tribal leaders, councils and organizations representing Indian Country, and will continue to do so in the coming weeks to strengthen government-to-government relations. The team also recently added a Native American doctor, Dr. Jim Jill, to its COVID-19 advisory board.
Regardless of who Biden picks for the post, the surge of momentum behind Haaland for interior secretary ― not the most flashy job ― is remarkable. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have thrown their support behind her. Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, is circulating a petition urging Biden to pick Haaland for the post. Indigenous-led organizations like NDN Collective and Indigenous Environmental Network have been trying to get the hashtag #DebForInterior trending on Twitter.
Some have come up with hilarious memes to go with it.
Some Indigenous women angrily defended Haaland on social media and to HuffPost shortly after this story was published.
Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, said Biden promised that his administration would have gender parity and diversity unlike any previous administration.
“He promised he would listen to Indian Country,” said Benjamin. “Congresswoman Haaland’s accomplishments are already historic and her qualifications are not in question ... The opportunity for the Biden/Harris team to make this inspired choice is golden. It should not be overtaken by anonymous voices that insult both women and Indian Country.”
“It is offensive that Congresswoman Deb Haaland is being subjected to a sexist whisper campaign that is attempting to undermine her experience,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, executive director of Illuminative, a nonprofit aimed at increasing the visibility of Native people.
“It’s yet another example of how Native women, and women of color, despite having excellent qualifications and broad support, have to continuously fight against sexist narratives that could disqualify them from positions they deserve,” she said. “President-Elect Biden said he would strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship between tribes and his administration. Tribal leaders are endorsing Haaland and are telling the administration she is the best, most qualified candidate for the position. Is the president-elect listening?”
Meanwhile, groups in New Mexico are still sending letters to Biden backing Haaland. On Saturday, 50 Indigenous, environmental and social justice organizations in the state wrote to Biden saying Haaland is “uniquely qualified” to be interior secretary. This was a day after the All Pueblo Council of Governors formally urged Biden to nominate Haaland, and two weeks after the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council wrote a similar letter.
In the mix of those New Mexico tribes backing Haaland?
Taos Pueblo, Connor’s tribe.