Indigenous Tribes Celebrate Biden Interior Secretary Pick

Posted on: December 17, 2020, 02:57h. 

Last updated on: July 7, 2021, 01:07h.

Tribal communities are celebrating President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to head the US Department of the Interior (DOI).

Native American Interior Department tribal casino
Native American congresswoman Rep. Deb Haaland (D) is set to be nominated to head the Department of the Interior under the Biden administration. (Image: CBS News)

Multiple news outlets are reporting that Biden will select Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M). If chosen and confirmed by the Senate, she would make history by becoming the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet. Haaland, 60, is a member of the Laguna Pueblo, a federally recognized tribe in New Mexico.

Prior to her political career, she served as chair of the Laguna Development Corporation. The business unit oversaw the operations of the tribe’s Dancing Eagle Casino and Route 66 Casino Hotel. Combined, the two Native American casinos offer more than 2,000 slot machines and 100 table games.

The Native American community quickly welcomed the Haaland news.

“It is truly a historic and unprecedented day for all Indigenous people,” declared Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. “As a member of Congress, she has been a strong voice for all tribal nations … on a wide variety of issues, including land management, clean energy, economic development, social justice, and job creation.”

The Interior Department is responsible for the management and conservation of most federal lands and natural resources. The DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs handles federal relations with American Indians and Alaska Natives, including administering and managing lands held in trust by the US government.

Mashpee Casino Impact

For more than half a decade, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts has been attempting to build a $1 billion casino resort in Taunton.

Five years ago, the Interior Department under the Obama administration agreed to take 151 acres of land the Mashpee acquired into federal trust. However, under the Trump administration, the land located some 40 miles northwest of the tribe’s sovereign reservation was removed from the registrar.

Interior said in 2018 that the department erred three years earlier in taking the land into trust. A DOI statement explained that only tribes federally recognized at the time of the 1934 passing of the Indian Reorganization Act qualify to have new lands taken into trust.

The fight has carried on, as the intersection of tribal and federal law is one of the more complex legal divisions in the US gaming industry. However, the Mashpee people believe having a Native American head the Interior Department only helps their odds of becoming a gaming tribe.

This is great news for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, Indian Country, and the entire planet,” Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Vice Chair Jessie “Little Doe” Bird told “We enthusiastically support her nomination and have appreciated her strong support for our Tribe over the years.”

“With this selection, Joe Biden is making good on a campaign promise to nominate cabinet officials that reflect the diversity of the country they serve. Rep. Deb Haaland is well-respected across Indian Country, and her appointment will immediately strengthen the relationship between the government and sovereign Native American Tribes across the United States,” Little Doe added.

The Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association also weighed in.

“OIGA celebrates the historic nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, to serve the Biden administration as Secretary of the Interior, the country’s first Native American Cabinet secretary and the fourth woman to serve in this role. She has served as a champion for the people of New Mexico. Her strength of character and courage of conviction make her an excellent choice for this post and we look forward to her confirmation,” said OIGA Chairman Matthew L. Morgan. 

Massachusetts Gaming Industry

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission still has one destination resort commercial casino license that it can issue. But since the gaming permit is earmarked for the southeastern part of the state — the same area as Taunton — the state has held off on considering bids.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) has backed legislation in DC to bypass the DOI’s most recent land-into-trust ruling and recognize the Mashpee’s land in Taunton as sovereign. She, too, celebrated Biden’s Interior pick.

“Woo-hoo! Deb is an outstanding choice,” Warren tweeted. “She’ll be a terrific Secretary of the Interior — protecting public lands and natural resources, fighting climate change, and making history.”