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Native political power paved the way for Haaland’s historic confirmation • OpenSecrets


Deb Haaland as she is sworn is as U.S. secretary of the interior on Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Deb Haaland became the Secretary of the Interior after a confirmation vote of 51-40 in early March, picking up votes from every Democrat in attendance and Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.).  

Haaland, a former member of Congress for New Mexico and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, is now the first Native American to helm the Department of the Interior, which encompasses the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is responsible for the conservation of federal lands across the country. 

Kenneth Hansen, professor of Political Science and American Indian Studies at Fresno State, articulated the significance of Haaland’s confirmation.

“Here you have a department which houses an agency that, once upon a time, was basically a colonial agency for Native people, and it’s now being run by one of the people that was colonized — or their descendants anyway,” Hansen told OpenSecrets. “It really is a big thing.” 

History wasn’t made overnight. The battle over Haaland’s appointment pitted the oil and gas industry against tribal leaders and Native activists from across the country who mobilized a coordinated media campaign to pressure President Joe Biden to tap Haaland for the job.

Julian Brave NoiseCat was among the advocates working behind the scenes to make Haaland’s confirmation happen. He’s a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen in British Columbia, Canada, and vice president of policy and strategy at progressive think tank Data for Progress

NoiseCat included Haaland’s name on a progressive wishlist of cabinet appointees published by the think tank in July, a move that felt to NoiseCat like “wishcasting” at the time. The presidential election was still months away and progressives were unsure how receptive the Democratic nominee would be to their demands. Then, just a month later, NoiseCat got a call from Haaland’s chief of staff. The New Mexico congresswoman was on board. 

When Biden announced his selection of Haaland for the cabinet appointment in December, NoiseCat realized that, just maybe, his dream would become reality.

“I actually started crying in my apartment because it was just such a moving moment. She represents the opportunity to be part of something that’s in my view just undoubtedly right and long overdue,” he said. 

Haaland’s confirmation has been lauded as a victory for progressives and environmentalists. She has pledged to advocate fiercely for the conservation of federal lands and was a staunch supporter of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. But NoiseCat said that much of the work that led to Haaland’s win came from Native leaders. 

“A few reporters might know that some tribes operate casinos, but they don’t think about Native leaders in Congress and they don’t combine all this with social movements,” NoiseCat said. “[Most reporters] don’t represent Native people as being politically influential.”  

Old bridges and new horizons 

Haaland’s confirmation hearing turned testy at times as Republican members of the Senate Energy Committee grilled her on her history of environmental advocacy and her stance on the future of oil and gas drilling on federal lands. 

After acknowledging the historical import of Haaland’s nomination, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) declared his opposition to her confirmation. 

“But let me be very clear, Representative Haaland’s extreme policy views and lack of substantive answers during the hearing disqualify her for this job,” Barasso said in a statement following the hearing. “If she is allowed to pursue her Green New Deal-inspired policies at the Department of the Interior, she will run Wyoming and other states’ economies into a ditch.” 

The oil and gas industry contributed nearly $600,000 to Barasso’s 2020 campaign and more than $4.7 million to Republican senators on the Energy Committee, according to an OpenSecrets analysis

For NoiseCat, the ultimate bipartisanship of Haaland’s confirmation vote despite vigorous opposition from the GOP is best understood as neither coincidence nor singularity, but rather the result of decades of strategic political decision making and relationship building between tribes and politicians. In short, “tribes are pretty savvy political actors,” NoiseCat said. 

Graham explicitly credited pressure from a South Carolina tribal leader for his “yea” vote on the Senate floor. A spokesperson for the senator told the HuffPost that a January letter from Chief William Harris of the Catawba Indian Nation “carried a lot of weight” in securing Graham’s support. 

Chief Harris wrote that Haaland would be an ally in the Catawba’s fight for rights to their aboriginal lands in South Carolina, a fight Graham has worked with the tribe to win in years past. In 2019, the Republican introduced a bill to help secure long-sought gaming rights for the Catawba nation. 

“In our more than a decade of work together, I am grateful for you and your staff’s strong respect and support for tribal self-determination,” Harris wrote. “In light of that work, I am hopeful that you can support congresswoman Haaland’s nomination.”

Hansen has written some of the only modern academic research that describes how tribes behave as political actors. He argues that tribes back political actors who will help them in return. 

“They give money where it’ll get them the most good. It’s an investment,” said Hansen. 

This means that tribes often play both sides of the electoral field by giving money to Republican and Democratic candidates and parties. In 2020, tribal nations that operate casinos spent just shy of $15 million on political contributions. Of that, $9 million went to Democrats but a sizable sum — $4.3 million — went to Republicans. 

Under Federal Election Commission rules, tribes exist in unique limbo between the status of individuals and corporations. They may contribute the same sums as individuals to candidates, parties and PACs. Because gaming tribes directly own and operate casinos but are not legally corporations, they do not need to establish PACs to make political donations. 

In 2010, Alaskans Standing Together, a super PAC funded almost entirely by Alaska Native Corporations, spent more than $1.6 million to support Murkowski, who ran a write-in campaign for Senate after losing the Alaska Republican primary to a Tea Party challenger. Alaskans Standing Together spent more than any other outside group in the election — its spending represented more than a third of the total outside money spent on the three-way 2010 Senate race.

Alaska is home to more Native voters than any other state. According to 2018 census data compiled by the National Congress of America Indians, there are nearly 100,000 eligible Native voters in Alaska — representing 17 percent of the state’s total electorate. 

“My success in running the history making write-in campaign that I ran last November would not have been possible if Alaska’s Native people did not turn out at the polls. I deeply appreciate the trust that Alaska’s Native people have placed in me,” Murkowski said in a 2011 speech

In a February article for Politico Magazine, NoiseCat noted that though Alaskan tribal communities typically favor Democrats, their leaders made a strategic choice to back Murkowski in 2010. 

“While Alaska Natives might have felt they could trust Murkowski because she took the time to get to know them, this was also a strategic vote: [Joe] Miller, her opponent, was openly hostile to Native people, and the Democrat on the ballot didn’t stand a chance of defeating him in the conservative state,” NoiseCat wrote. 

Murkowski will need to hold Alaska Native people’s trust as she prepares to again defend her seat in 2022. Kelly Tshibaka, head of Alaska’s Department of Administration, announced Monday that she would mount a from-the-right challenge against Murkowski in the 2022 primary. Tshibaka’s campaign may get the support of conservative GOP fundraisers who have criticized Murkowski’s vote to convict former President Donald Trump during the Senate’s impeachment trial. She may also earn the financial backing of Trump himself

Building bipartisanship 

Tribes’ ability and interest in building relationships with both parties reflects the reality that, like any other demographic, “Native people are not monolithic,” according to Hansen. 

Some Native voters may favor Democrats because they campaign on environmental protections, but others may find closer allies in Republican candidates who rally against government overreach. 

“There are some people that decide the Democrats are the closest thing they’re going to get to their policy preferences or their ideology, but then there are others that maybe go in the way of the Republicans because they profess the ‘get the government off our backs’ idea,” Hansen said. “And then there’s a lot of people that are ‘none of the above’ or independent.”

There are currently four members of Congress of Native descent. Three are Republicans: Reps. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Yvette Herrell (R-N.M.). The fourth is Sharice Davids (D-Kan.). During the 116th Congress, Mullin, Cole and Davids served as vice chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, which “seeks to educate members of Congress and encourage an open dialogue about issues affecting Native Americans.” 

So, though Haaland’s ideological leanings are undoubtedly partisan, her position as an advocate for the rights and liberties of indigenous people meant that she, perhaps uniquely, could muster support from a range of lawmakers. According to NoiseCat, that’s part of the reason Biden picked her for the job in the first place. 

“She’s a path breaker, but also that she’s a unifier. She was probably one of the only, if not the only, American politician to get support from both leftist organizations like Sunrise Movement and congressional Republicans like [Alaska Republican Rep.] Don Young,” NoiseCat said. “[Lawmakers saw] what she would mean as a consensus builder, as a leader.” 

Tribes’ ability to build and exercise political power is no new phenomenon, but what that power looks like is changing.

Approximately 250 tribes in 29 states operate casinos. In 2019, these tribes collectively made $34.6 billion in revenue, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission. And, like many other businesses with cash to spare, some tribes choose to invest some of their cash in political spending. 

“They basically learn the rules of the game, and they play the game just like everybody else does,” Hansen said. “It’s not really an Earth-shattering finding.”

During the 2008 election cycle, tribes that run gaming operations and related interest groups represented three of the top 10 political donors nationwide according to an analysis of state and federal contributions by OpenSecrets and the National Institute on Money and Politics.  

During that year, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians, which operates a casino and resort in southern California, spent a whopping $44 million on federal and California elections, making the tribe the number two spender nationwide on political campaigns. In addition to campaign spending in support of a California ballot measure to protect and expand the tribe’s gaming rights, the Pechanga Band contributed almost evenly to Democrats and Republicans. Federal campaign contributions by gaming tribes peaked at $18.7 million in 2016 and have declined slightly in subsequent cycles. 

As political spending by gaming tribes plateaus, young Native activists are building power of a different kind. A network of nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organizations aimed at mobilizing and organizing Native voters has been growing rapidly since 2017. This new wave of Native advocacy followed protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota, which drew international media attention to the demands of Native advocates who opposed the project.

One such advocate, Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, is president and CEO of NDN Collective, a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization formed in 2017. The group is part grant-maker, part mutual-aid fund and part media-strategy firm. According to the nonprofit’s tax returns, NDN Collective raised $11.6 million in revenue during the 2019 fiscal year. 

During Haaland’s confirmation process, NDN Collective promoted her qualifications for the position and shared posts and memes with the hashtag “#debforinterior” on its social media accounts.  

NoiseCat, who is a fellow with NDN Collective, said social media was ultimately essential to galvanizing support for Haaland’s confirmation. 

“I basically was trying to build as much buzz as I could on social media, and I think that part was really essential because she was an outside longshot, and a big part of her success came about, by building a compelling narrative for decision makers in the Biden camp, as well as on Capitol Hill,” NoiseCat said. 

Haaland was sworn in as Secretary of the Interior on March 18.

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