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This week, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) as Secretary of the Interior Department. An impressive woman in her own right, Haaland embodies the determination of the new administration to use the government for the good of all Americans, rather than for special interests. This makes her a threat to business-as-usual on issues of both race and the economy. Her confirmation vote was 50-41; only four Republicans voted in favor of her appointment.
Haaland is the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in our history, heading the department that, in the nineteenth century, abandoned Indigenous peoples for political leverage. She is a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation, whose people have lived in the land that is now New Mexico for 35 generations. The daughter of two military veterans, Haaland is a single mother who earned a law degree with a young child in tow. She was a tribal leader focused on environmentally responsible economic development for the Lagunas before she became a Democratic leader.
Haaland brings to the position her opposition to further explorations for oil and gas on public lands, as well as an opposition to fracking, the process of extracting natural gas through fracturing rock with hydraulic pressure. Republicans have called her “radical” and say her opposition to the expansion of fossil fuels disqualifies her from overseeing an agency that, as Washington Post columnist Darryl Fears puts it, “traditionally promoted those values.”
Congress established the Department of the Interior in 1849 to pull together federal offices that dealt with matters significant to the domestic policy of the United States and were, at the time, scattered in a number of different departments. Among other things, the Interior Department took control of Indian affairs and public lands.
Reformers hoped that moving Indian Affairs from the War Department to the Interior Department, where civilians rather than army officers would control Indigenous relations, would lead to fewer wars. Instead, the move swept Indigenous people into a political system over which they had no control.
As settlers pushed into Indigenous territory, the government took control of the land through treaties that promised the tribes food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and usually the tools and seeds to become farmers. As well, tribal members usually received a yearly payment of cash. These distributions of goods and money were not payment for the land. They replaced the livelihood the tribes lost when they gave up their lands.
Either willingly or by force, tribes moved onto reservations, large tracts of land overseen by an agent who, once Indian Affairs was in the Department of the Interior, was a political appointee chosen by the U.S. senators of the state in which the reservation was located. While some of the agents actually tried to do their job, most were put into office to advance the interests of the political party in power. So, they took the money Congress appropriated for the tribe they oversaw, then gave the contracts for the beef, flour, clothing, blankets, and so on, to cronies, who would fulfill the contracts with moldy food and rags, if they bothered to fulfill them at all. The agents would pocket the rest of the money, using it to help keep their political party in power and themselves in office.
When tribal leaders complained, lawmakers pointed out—usually quite correctly—that they had appropriated the money required under the treaties. But the system had essentially become a slush fund, and the tribes had no recourse against the corrupt agents except, when they were starving, to go to war. Then the agents called in the troops. Democrat Grover Cleveland tried to clean up the system in 1885-1889, but as soon as Republican Benjamin Harrison took the White House back, he jump-started the old system again.
The corruption was so bad by then that military leaders tried to take the management of Indian Affairs away from the Interior Department, furious that politicians caused trouble with the tribes and then soldiers and unoffending Indians died. It looked briefly as if they might win until the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 ended any illusions that military management would be a better deal for Native Americans than political management.
By the twentieth century, much of the Interior Department’s work turned to managing mineral and grazing rights, not only on Indigenous land, but also on land owned by the federal government. Until 1920, federal law permitted companies to claim the minerals under land they staked out. The discovery of oil in the West sparked a rush, though, and in 1909, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey warned Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger that prospectors were taking up all the land. Ballinger in turn warned President William Howard Taft, who used an executive order to protect more than 3 million acres of public lands in California and Wyoming, reserving the oil under them for use by the U.S. Navy.
In 1920, Congress passed the Mineral Leasing Act, which put the Interior Department in charge of overseeing leases to explore for oil and minerals, permitting drilling and mining, and receiving payments of a percentage of the value of anything extracted.
Soon after President Warren G. Harding took office in 1921, his Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, began to accept huge bribes from oil tycoon Edward Doheny. In 1922, Fall persuaded the Secretary of the Navy to transfer control of the Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming, along with two other oil fields in California, to him. Harding signed off on the deal, and Fall promptly gave Doheny secret, no-bid leases for the fields.
The Teapot Dome scandal sent Fall to prison for a year, making him the first former cabinet official to serve time.
Although Doheny was convinced that socialism was destroying America, Teapot Dome marked the beginning of the power of the oil industry in the American government, power ultimately personified when Trump appointed a lawyer and lobbyist for the energy and oil industry, David Bernhardt, to head the department. Bernhardt—who was confirmed by a vote of 56 to 41—rolled back environmental regulations and opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
The Biden administration seems eager to break the hold of the energy industry on the Interior Department. As soon as he took office, Biden appointed almost 50 top officials, and froze the new drilling permits issued by the Trump administration for review.
Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told Haaland that his state collects more than a billion dollars a year in royalties and taxes from the oil, gas, and coal produced on federal lands in the state, and warned that the Biden administration is “taking a sledgehammer to Western states’ economies.”
Haaland reassured him that having “lived most of my adult life paycheck to paycheck,” she understands the economic struggles of ordinary Americans and is fully on board with the administration’s plan to build back better, “to responsibly manage our natural resources to protect them for future generations—so that we can continue to work, live, hunt, fish, and pray among them.”
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland tweeted when Biden announced her nomination. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.