When President-elect Joe Biden announced key members of his climate team Saturday, one nominee was particularly historic: Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M.
If the Senate confirms her as secretary of the interior, Haaland would be the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet and would be the first Native person to oversee an agency that's played a major role historically in the forced relocation and oppression of Indigenous people.
"This moment is profound when we consider the fact that a former secretary of the interior once proclaimed his goal to, quote, 'civilize or exterminate' us," Haaland said, referring to an 1851 remark made by Alexander H. H. Stuart. "I'm a living testament to the failure of that horrific ideology. I also stand on the shoulders of my ancestors and all the people who have sacrificed so that I can be here."
At an event announcing his latest nominees in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday, Biden noted the significance of having Haaland fill "a critical role."
"As the first Native American Cabinet secretary in the history of the United States of America, she'll be a true steward of our national parks, our natural resources and all of our lands. The federal government has long broken promises to Native American tribes who have been on this land since time immemorial. With her appointment, Congresswoman Haaland will help me strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship," Biden said.
Haaland spoke about her upbringing as a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, saying her experiences have made her "fierce."
"My life has not been easy," she said. "I struggled with homelessness. I relied on food stamps and raised my child as a single mom. These struggles give me perspectives, though, so that I can help people to succeed. My grandparents, who were taken away from their families as children and sent to boarding school, in an effort to destroy their traditions and identities, maintained our culture."
Those experiences could help Haaland succeed in her new role, especially in addressing the climate crisis and the disproportionate impact of pollution on minority communities.
"As our country faces the impacts of climate change and environmental injustice, the Interior Department has a role to address these challenges. The president-elect's goals, driven by justice and empowering communities who have shouldered the burdens of environmental negligence, we will ensure that the decisions at Interior will once again be driven by science," Haaland said.
Joining Haaland at the announcement were other Biden climate nominees, tasked with carrying out his ambitious policy that would seek to move the country toward a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035, including Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Biden's Energy Department secretary-designate, and North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Director Michael Regan, nominated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency -- the first Black man so nominated.
Also at the event was former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, tapped to be Biden's national climate adviser, a new position in the Biden Administration.
The picks join Biden's historically diverse cabinet, following through on his promise to build an administration that "looks like America." To date, Biden has named more women and persons of color to his cabinet than has any previous administration.
Haaland is also joined by another barrier-breaking Cabinet pick, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was nominated as secretary of transportation and would be the first openly gay cabinet secretary to be confirmed.