President-elect Joe Biden's choice to lead the Department of Interior would make history. She would also be a bold and correct choice for the position.
Which means North Dakota's congressional delegation will fall all over themselves to oppose Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, who would be the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position.
Part of North Dakota's opposition to her will be ideological. She is a progressive Democrat who calls climate change "the challenge of our lifetime."
But a bigger part of it will be personal. Haaland cooked meals for protesters on North Dakota's Standing Rock Reservation during the Dakota Access Pipeline standoff in 2016.
And if we've learned one thing about North Dakota, it's that you can't in any way have supported the DAPL protesters and be treated with any level of respect.
Haaland is said to be Biden's nominee to lead the 70,000-person department that oversees America's public lands and upholds the federal government's responsibilities to the U.S.'s 574 Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages. Interior also oversees 1.7 billion acres off the country's coasts. National parks, wildlife refuges, culturally important sites and natural resource development also fall under its auspices.
It's a given, thankfully, Haaland would manage things much differently than President Donald Trump's Interior Department. If confirmed, she'll be an excellent shepherd of our precious public lands. Developing them for oil and gas companies will not be her first priority, if it's a priority at all.
Haaland, a member of New Mexico's Pueblo of Laguna tribe, spent four days in September 2016 cooking green chili and tortillas at the Standing Rock Sioux camps protesting the completion of DAPL.
Her experience there was chronicled by The Forum's C.S. Hagen, who when he wrote about Haaland was working for Fargo's High Plains Reader, a weekly arts and entertainment newspaper. Haaland has Hagen's article posted on her official Congressional website.
Here's an excerpt:
"I first saw it on Facebook, but more and more people were coming out here from New Mexico and posting their experiences on Facebook and I just realized that I should come," Haaland said. She is now one of the first female Native Representatives for New Mexico.
She had just finished speaking at the North Dakota Heritage Center in support of wet plate photographer Shane Balkowitsch’s release of his first photographic book "Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective (Volume I)." Other media outlets had left. The line of North Dakota supporters bringing her gifts had dwindled to a trickle.
"It was a way we do — to cook food and share it — it was important to me."
Haaland is Pueblo of Laguna, a tribe that settled far from the Great Plains, but her interests regarding the environment should resonate the 1,200 miles to North Dakota, especially with new projects – the Phillips 66 so-called "Freedom Pipeline" and a DAPL expansion – looming on the horizon, she said.
Standing Rock didn’t lose in February 2017 after President Donald Trump signed an executive order to "get that pipeline built," she said.
"I felt like we really had hit on an environmental movement that was deep and meaningful," Haaland said. "It just seemed so amazing that so many tribes came together, because tribes came from everywhere to stand with the water protectors. It was significant that so many of us came together to protect water, our natural resources.
"It was absolutely a boost to the environmental cause, I think it woke a lot of people up and it activated a lot of environmental activists all over the place. We’ve been able to fight back some on those issues in New Mexico and have had folks that have been on the front lines. Any time when people rise up and protect what they have it’s going to activate people."
Standing Rock’s message to the world, even after 836 activists were arrested with most of the cases thrown out of court or suspects proven innocent, spurred preemptive legislative strikes in six states that originated with the bill mill ALEC, or the American Legislative Executive Council. The proposals, two of which passed in North Dakota, were aimed at countering future protests by strengthening penalties against protestors and supporters.
"There shouldn’t be penalties for protests, it’s our Constitutional right," Haaland said. "I am whole-heartedly against any of that. Any of those right-wing organizations that mean to stifle the American spirit are counter to everything we believe in as Americans.
"White supremacists were marching in the streets of Virginia and the President supported them," Haaland said. "When people rise up to defend our environment the President should support them also."
To say Haaland would be an improvement over Trump's Interior secretaries — the corrupt Ryan Zinke and the oil-and-gas booster David Bernhardt would be an understatement. Biden has vowed to undo much of Trump's environmental rollback and Haaland would play a key role as head of Interior.
Her appointment would also be a major victory for Native American tribes, including those in North Dakota, and in much more than just a symbolic way.
"Tribal consultation is basically nonexistent during this Trump administration," Haaland said in an interview with National Public Radio prior to being nominated. "President-elect Biden has promised to consult with tribes, which I think will help immensely with some of the environmental issues that he wants to address."
Yes, there's little doubt: North Dakota's delegation isn't going to like this one bit.
Hopefully the Senate confirms Haaland ASAP.
Readers can reach Forum columnist Mike McFeely at firstname.lastname@example.org or (701) 451-5655