Native American nominee's grilling raises questions on bias
FLAGSTAFF, Arizona (AP) - When US Senator from Wyoming John Barrasso snapped on Deb Haaland during their confirmation hearing, many in the Indian country were outraged.
The exchange, combined with the description of the Home Secretary's candidate as "radical" - by other white male Republicans - left the feeling that Haaland was being treated differently because she was an Indian woman.
"If it were someone else, they wouldn't be held accountable for their ethnicity," said Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag tribe at Gay Head Aquinnah, Massachusetts.
At the hearing on Wednesday, Barrasso wanted reassurance that Haaland will obey the law when it comes to endangered species. Before the Congresswoman finished her reply, Barrasso exclaimed, "I'm talking about the law!"
Barrasso, former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said his unusual reaction was a sign of frustration with Haaland dodging questions. It was annoying among Haaland supporters across the country who virtually tuned in.
"It was awful. It was disrespectful," said Rebecca Ortega of Santa Clara Pueblo in Haaland's home state of New Mexico. "I just feel like if it had been a white man or woman, he would never have screamed like that."
The Home Office has extensive oversight of energy development as well as tribal affairs, and some Republican senators have labeled Haaland "radical" for reducing its dependence on fossil fuels and addressing climate change. They said this could harm rural America and the major oil and gas producing nations. Louisiana Senator John Kennedy, after two days of hearings, described Haaland as a "neo-socialist job left by Lenin".
Andrews-Maltais saw "radical" as the code for "you are an Indian".
But Montana Republican Senator Steve Daines said it wasn't about race. Daines uses the term frequently to describe Democrats and their policies, including President Joe Biden and Montana Governor Steve Bullock, whom Daines defeated in November.
"As much as I would love to have a Native American woman in the president's cabinet, I have concerns about her files ... To say otherwise is outrageous and insulting," he told The Associated Press.
Civil rights activists say Haaland's treatment fits a pattern of nominees who face more political opposition than white counterparts.
The endorsement of Neera Tanden, who would become the first Indian American to head the bureau of administration and household, was challenged when he lost the support of West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. He quoted her controversial tweets attacking members of both parties.
Critics have also targeted Vanita Gupta, an Indian American and Biden's election as assistant attorney general, and California attorney general Xavier Becerra as secretary for health and human services. Conservatives launched campaigns calling Gupta "dangerous" and questioning Becerra's qualifications.
Democrats pushed back against Haaland's treatment, wondering if attempts to block her nomination were motivated by anything other than her record. Former US Sens. And cousins Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado said Haaland "should be accorded the same respect and esteem" as other nominees.
The hearing itself grilling Haaland on oil and gas development, national parks and tribes was a cultural conflict in the way Democrats and many Indians view the world - everything is intertwined and must be in balance to keep the environment for generations come to protect.
This was evident in Haaland's response when asked about her motivation to become Minister of the Interior. She recalled a story about Navajo Code Talkers during World War II who found it a priority to find a word in their native language for "Mother Earth".
"It is difficult not to feel obliged to protect this land, and I have a feeling that every indigenous peoples in this country understand that," she said.
That broader historical context is missing from the Republican talks against Haaland, which instead simplify the debate into a battle between industry and environmentalists, said Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a senior lecturer in Indian studies at California State University in San Marcos.
"There's obviously a really big talk going on about how the country became the United States," she said. "That's the elephant in the living room that nobody wants to talk about."
Andrew Werk Jr., president of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes on the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana, said the Republicans' harsh treatment of Haaland was unfair to her and the Americans.
But he does not see any racist bias in Daines' actions to reject Haaland as "radical", only hardened partisanship.
"For all the reasons Sen. Daines opposes her, these are all the reasons we support her at Fort Belknap," Werk said. "Our land is our identity, and as tribes we want to be good stewards and protect that."
Despite Republican opposition, Haaland has enough Democratic support to become the first Native American to head the Home Office. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to vote on the nomination next week before the entire Senate steps in.
60-year-old Haaland woven childhood memories, experiences on public land, and tribal rights into her responses during the hearing. She talked about carrying buckets of water for her grandmother on a dusty street in Laguna Pueblo, where she comes from, and being careful not to spill a drop because she saw its importance. She talked about harvesting an oryx, a type of antelope that fed her family for a year, about her support for the unlimited protection of grizzly bears and the sacrifices of their ancestors.
Frank White Clay, chairman of the Crow Tribe, which earns much of its revenue from a coal mine on his southeastern Montana reservation, said Republicans had "legitimate concerns about natural resources." But he urged them to consider the historical nature of Haaland's nomination.
"A local woman stands by for confirmation - her problems are problems of the Indian country," said White Clay.
Haaland promised to implement Biden's agenda and bypass the details of what she would do if confirmed. While the indeterminacy rocked Republicans, her supporters said it showed she was a consensus-maker.
"She hasn't lost her cool," said Kalyn Free, who is Choctaw and supports Haaland. “For me, that's not an indicator of their performance. ... That's because she had to put up with this crap for 60 years. This was not a new experience for her. "
___ Washington associate press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.
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