Interior secretary-nominee U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland finished a two-day confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate on Feb. 24. Oil-state senators on the Senate Energy Committee challenged her on anti-development positions she took as a U.S. Congresswoman, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski seemed more intent on educating the nominee about Alaska’s unique circumstances.
If confirmed, Haaland will be the first Indigenous person to be the Secretary of the Interior, a cabinet position with massive oversight of Indian affairs. Haaland first addressed the committee in her Indigenous language, Keres, and then thanked them. She also made sure to show her gratitude to those who came before her. The “generations of ancestors who have sacrificed so much,” is how Haaland referred to them.
Murkowski, who sits on the committee, used her allotted hearing time to tell Haaland about Alaska’s history, the role of Alaska Native corporations and the huge volume of Alaska land under the Interior Department’s control. Murkowski also made a pitch for the Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. It would be the westernmost oilfield on the North Slope.
“What I need to know is, is if you’re confirmed, will you commit to allowing the Willow project to proceed without additional changes or environmental review?” asked Murkowski.
As a congresswoman representing central New Mexico, Haaland signed a letter last year asking the U.S. Department of the Interior to stop all work on Willow. Haaland said that if confirmed, she would work to execute President Biden’s vision for natural resources, even if it differed from her own. “I think being a Secretary is far different from being a member of Congress. And so I do take that role very seriously,” responded Haaland.
Some Native corporations and organizations in Alaska have chosen not to opine on Haaland’s nomination, but the Alaska Federation of Natives publicly supports her. Support for Haaland is also widespread in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region, where many prominent female leaders have backed Haaland.
“I think my initial reaction was, it’s about time,” said Y-K Delta representative Tiffany Zulkosky. Zulkosky also said that as the only sitting Native woman in the Alaska House of Representatives, she feels a sense of solidarity with Haaland. She says that because Haaland understands what life is like for Native people, she actually has a chance at protecting Yup’ik ways of life.
One of the policies in particular that Zulkosky is hoping to work on with Haaland is about missing and murdered Indigenous women. And she expects that under Haaland, the Department of the Interior will engage more with Alaska’s state and tribal governments.
“I’m really hopeful that the new administration under Deb Haaland’s leadership will continue to develop and strengthen the relationship the federal government has with tribes,” said Zulkosky.
Former Y-K Delta representative Mary Peltola had a similar take: “I think what’s even more surprising is that it’s taken this long to have a Native American appointed to be the Secretary of the Department of Interior.”
Peltola currently serves as the executive director for the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Her role as a local manager of fish resources means that she works closely with the Department of Interior, which has some jurisdiction over subsistence fish and game management on federal lands and in federal waters. Working with a Department leader who can more closely understand Indigenous lifeways and values is crucial, said Peltola.
“The person who is Secretary of the Interior is important because they have so much discretion over regulation and laws that directly impact us in terms of things like hunting and fishing,” said Peltola. Peltola’s husband, Gene Peltola Jr., is the Alaska director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the Department of the Interior.
Vivian Korthuis, the CEO of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a non-profit consortium of tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, said that there’s a lot of hard work ahead for Alaska Natives, and it can finally begin at a federal level under Haaland.
“We are lacking housing, we are lacking safe and reliable transportation infrastructure and the general need for economic opportunities in our rural parts of the state. And in the Y-K Delta, I’m ready to work with her to implement all the solutions in rural Alaska,” said Korthuis.
Korthuis said that she’s looking forward to working with Haaland.
The Senate Energy Committee hasn’t yet scheduled a vote on whether to forward the nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. After the hearing ended, Murkowski told a reporter at the Capitol that she planned to meet with Haaland again.