Under Trump, the Interior Department has rolled back environmental protections and faced scrutiny for potential ethics breaches. Trump’s first Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, oversaw the largest rollback of federal land protection in U.S. history before he resigned in January 2019 while under investigation for at least 15 ethical violations. His replacement, David Bernhardt, came to the role after years as a lobbyist and lawyer working to weaken the Endangered Species Act. Not long after taking office, Bernhardt also came under an ethics investigation for using his position to advance policy work he began as a lobbyist, blocking the release of a scientific report on the harmful effects of a pesticide on certain endangered species, and continuing to work as a lobbyist after legally declaring that he had ended that work.
When the Department of the Interior began those environmental rollbacks, Seeding Sovereignty, an Indigenous-led radical and decolonial collective, jumped on a lawsuit with the Animal Legal Defense Fund to protect culturally -significant sites that were suddenly endangered.
The Trump administration and Interior Department “decided to review those sites and decide which of those they could shrink for the fossil fuels industry,” said Eryn Wise (Jicarilla Apache and Laguna Pueblo), 30, communications and digital director for the Seeding Sovereignty collective. “From our perspective, it would be incredible, and we would advocate for someone of this land, who is watching protections for their homelands be rescinded, an Indigenous matriarch” to take on this role as Interior Secretary.
Since she was elected alongside a wave of other progressive women in the November 2018 midterms, Haaland has introduced bills and served on committees dedicated to protecting public lands and Native peoples. She serves as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, and is also a member of the Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States. She has sponsored 51 bills including measures to recognize the maternal health crisis among Indigenous women, establish a truth and healing commission on the Indian Boarding School Policy Act, and create a Native American language resource center.
During the election, she served on Biden’s campaign as a member of the Climate Engagement Advisory Council. Most recently, two historic bills that she sponsored or co-led were signed into law: the Not Invisible Act of 2019, which seeks to reduce violent crime on Native land, and Savanna’s Act, which addresses the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Seeding Sovereignty believes that Haaland’s dual commitment to protecting Indigenous peoples and the land is important. “Violence to the land is connected to violence to people,” said Wise, referencing the violence against women that often occurs when “man camps” are built to extract resources from a region. “It would be deeply meaningful to have the co-sponsor of Savanna’s Act, that just passed ,to protect Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women at the helm of DOI.”
Although Seeding Sovereignty opposes any continuation of the settler-colonial U.S. empire, Wise said that the collective does respect Haaland as an culturally grounded leader who can act as a bridge between generations.
As a society, we’re facing the likelihood of a cataclysmic climate event, “but I feel as if we may have some sort of opportunity to do something better with a person that actually recognizes that this is a living earth,” said Wise.
Other Indigenous environmental activists like Ashly Hall (Crow Creek Sioux) agree.