Alaska Native enthusiasm for Interior nominee puts Murkowski on the spot

People standing in front of white capitol dome holding banners that say protect the Arctic.
Rep. Deb Haaland, at podium, spoke at a rally in Washington, D.C. to oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2018, a few weeks before she was sworn in to Congress. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

President Biden’s choice for Interior secretary presents a dilemma for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, pitting a long-held political goal against one of her base constituencies.

Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo tribal member from New Mexico, would be the first Indigenous cabinet secretary. Alaska Native leaders have mounted a big campaign to confirm her.

Haaland’s background matters, said former Alaska legislator Mary Peltola of Bethel, because of the authority she would have over matters such as subsistence hunting and fishing rights, tribal courts and Native allotments.

“For hundreds of years, we really haven’t had many Native people at the top who have a true understanding of the way that we live and our values and, you know, just the realities of growing up as a Native person and raising your family as a Native person,” Peltola said. “This is a very big deal.”

But Haaland has been an outspoken opponent of oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Selling drilling rights in the refuge is one of Murkowski’s biggest achievements.

RELATED: Biden’s pick for Interior secretary is a passionate foe of drilling in Arctic Refuge

At Haaland’s confirmation hearing Tuesday, Murkowski acknowledged how significant it would be to have a Native American lead Interior. She didn’t directly confront Haaland’s environmental stance. Instead, Murkowski focused on Biden’s first executive orders, which included a pause on leasing in the refuge.

“From Alaska’s perspective, you’ve got to understand that they’re looking at this and saying, ‘Wait a minute, why is this administration out to get us?’” Murkowski said. “I don’t think they’re out to get us. But I do think that there is a definite threat to the resource industry that our state is blessed to be able to host.”

Haaland began her response to Murkowski by reaching for common ground.

“Senator, thank you so much. And if I could just quickly say thank you, again, for all of your help with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women legislation,” Haaland said. “That means the world to me.”

Haaland said she’d consult with Murkowski on Alaska development issues and would follow the law. 

Alaska Congressman Don Young introduced Haaland at the start of the hearing. Haaland was elected to the U.S. House in 2018. She and Young worked together on the Natural Resources Committee. He described her as someone who will listen to Republicans and moderate her perspective to serve everyone.

“So I want the secretary, if she’s confirmed — I hope you do confirm her — to understand there’s a broad picture here. And her job is to understand it’s no longer a little cartoon,” Young said. “This is the big picture. And she’ll have to have the responsibility to do the job I know she can do.”

Haaland’s hearing in the Senate Energy Committee continues Wednesday. Murkowski told a reporter she has a lot more questions for her.

Olivia Ebertz of KYUK contributed to this story from Bethel.