What a Joe Biden Cabinet Pick Might Mean for Native Americans—and Democrats

This summer, as calls for racial justice reached a fever pitch in America’s streets, it was a Trump-appointed Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch, who, in McGirt v. Oklahoma, wrote what is widely considered the most favorable majority decision for tribal treaty rights in at least a generation.

While Natives tend to be drawn to the Democratic Party’s commitments to racial diversity and social justice (polls suggest that Native voters preferred Biden over by 25 points), the GOP’s libertarian streak can, at times, find common ground with a people for whom the government has been a colonizer. In fact, it was President Richard Nixon who transformed the United States’ Indian policy from one of “termination” to its current form of self-determination. This summer, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, elected leader of the largest tribe in the country, addressed the Democratic National Convention. His vice president, Myron Lizer, spoke at the Republican convention.

That ideological balance, however, which has endured for over a generation, may not be permanent. Historically, Cabinet selections have had the effect of realigning the party preference of a racial group: Political scientists point to President Bill Clinton’s selection of Japanese American Norm Mineta for Transportation secretary as a turning point in that voting group’s behavior, shifting their lean from conservative to liberal.

If you look at county- and precinct-level data, Indian reservations, with few exceptions, are islands of Democratic blue amid oceans of Republican red. Almost every precinct on the Navajo Nation, for example, voted over 80 percent for Biden, playing an important though overlooked role in carrying Arizona for Democrats.

Native Americans have also had an outsize presence in progressive and environmental activism. Four years ago, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe erected a blockade in the path of the Dakota Access pipeline to defend its water and treaty rights. Haaland visited those encampments and even cooked for the demonstrators. In the wake of Standing Rock, a new generation of Indigenous millennials and Gen Z-ers dream of a future when the United States gives land back to Native nations. In theory, the next secretary of Interior could take steps to realize that goal.

Given these trends and this history, I asked the congresswoman—and a number of other Native leaders and political insiders—if there was any risk her appointment could unintentionally polarize tribal issues, solidifying them as a Democratic concern. Indeed, at certain moments over the past four years, such as the decision to reinstate and expedite permits for Dakota Access, it felt like President Trump might fully upend the bipartisan status quo on tribal affairs. The congresswoman and virtually everyone I consulted, however, brushed off the concern. “I think Indian Country has worked hard to be nice to everyone.” To whomever ultimately gets the job, she said, “We want to support you. And we want you to understand and know our issues.”

Ironically, it’s precisely this little-known and surprisingly bipartisan alignment on Indian affairs—an approach of necessity cultivated by tribal leaders weary of a return to this nation’s genocidal past—that has positioned Haaland as not only a potential pathbreaker, but also a unifier. Indeed, Haaland herself describes Representative Cole as a friend and mentor. “I feel like maybe him and I could be an example for how people can get along,” she told me.

Cast against this history of shrewd tribal statesmanship, nominating Haaland for Interior secretary presents a rare opportunity for Biden to not only do right by Indian Country, but also to bring more Native votes to the liberal party while advancing a consensus-building candidate.

Even without a Cabinet nomination, Haaland’s résumé has earned her a spot in American political history. She and Davids share the distinction of being the first Native women in Congress. The two make up a third of what will be the largest class of Indigenous representatives come January, thanks to the elections of Yvette Herrell, a Republican from New Mexico who is Cherokee, and Kaiali’i Kahele, a Democrat from Hawaii who is Kanaka Maoli.

But in the halls of power, Haaland brings more than just diversity. Like many Native Americans on reservations, Haaland says she knows what it’s like to live without running water and electricity, as her grandmother at Laguna Pueblo did well into the 1970s. Haaland recalls picking the worms off of cornstalks growing in Laguna fields and cooking for hundreds of guests on traditional pueblo feast days. She’s lived on food stamps and she raised her daughter as a single mother.

These experiences drive and inspire her. Over dinner, the congresswoman told me an idea she has for a screenplay about her grandfather’s all-Indian baseball team—formed because the white players in the small railroad town of Winslow, Arizona wouldn’t play with the Natives. She pulled out pictures to illustrate. One of her grandfather, Tony Toya, from the Jemez Pueblo and his ballclub. Another of her grandmother, Helen Steele, who was taken away from her family to a boarding school when she was 8 and who kept score for her husband’s team. In Haaland’s retelling of their story, the Indians from the far side of the tracks start winning so much that eventually the whites want to start playing for them.

In the past few years, the New Mexico representative has done her own fair share of winning, building a track record as a savvy and popular politician. According to her GovTrack report card, Haaland’s legislation has had more Senate companions than any other representative’s. The congresswoman has also led, co-sponsored and whipped influential and bipartisan votes for more bills than any other freshman. In an era of partisan gridlock, she has seen three of her acts signed into law: one strengthening tribal self-government, another incubating Native American small business and a third coordinating cross-agency actions to address the grisly phenomenon of Indigenous women turning up missing and murdered. To achieve all this, Haaland says she has employed a time-tested political theory. “I really try to follow my aunt’s advice—my Auntie Ann, may God rest her soul. One piece of advice that she always gave me was be nice to everyone.”

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