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Haaland Would Be 1st Native American Interior Secretary, Cabinet Member

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Congresswoman Deb Haaland appeared before a confirmation hearing yesterday. If confirmed, Haaland will become the first Indigenous secretary of the Interior. It was a major television event for many younger tribal citizens excited to watch her historic nomination unfold. Savannah Maher with the Mountain West News Bureau has more.

SAVANNAH MAHER, BYLINE: When Deb Haaland began her opening statement, she did something unprecedented.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEB HAALAND: (Speaking Keres).

MAHER: And 22-year-old Christie Wildcat took notice, watching from Laramie, Wyo.

CHRISTIE WILDCAT: I appreciate she did start her speech in her native language. That was just awesome to hear.

MAHER: Wildcat is a citizen of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. She was watching online with her 17-year-old sister, Jazmine Wildcat. They both took note of the way some senators interacted with Haaland.

JAZMINE WILDCAT: They've already stereotyped her as radical.

MAHER: Radical because of the policies she supports to combat climate change. They brace themselves as their own senator, Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming, begins his questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BARRASSO: Yes or no answers on this, if you could. As a general matter, should the federal government continue to permit oil and gas wells in this country?

HAALAND: Yes, and I believe that's happening.

J WILDCAT: He seemed super condescending. He's...

C WILDCAT: I did not like any part of that. He wasn't asking the question. It was more like an attack.

MAHER: For Christie and Jazmine, this was more than usual partisan politics at a committee hearing. They recognize the dynamics from their own experience, times they've been the only Native woman in the room.

J WILDCAT: So seeing it on, like, a federal level, it's mind-boggling.

C WILDCAT: Major eye roll, you know? Like, what's new? Even if I can get this high role, you're still going to talk down to me.

MAHER: It's a dynamic they're familiar with, and they're watching to learn from Haaland to see how she pushes back. In New Mexico, eighth-graders at Albuquerque's Native American Community Academy also watched the hearing. They live in Haaland's congressional district. History teacher Nick Felipe leads a discussion about the significance of the Interior Department.

NICK FELIPE: Their job is going to be maintaining that relationship between United States government and Native nations. So with that in mind, what kind of impact does this have on our communities?

MALILA DESCHINEY: I think that it's important, and it's good that there's a Native American woman being heard.

MAHER: Thirteen-year-old Malila Deschiney is a citizen of the Navajo Nation.

MALILA: I think a lot of people are very - what's that word - biased I think about Natives.

MAHER: Haaland, she says, is living proof that racist stereotypes are just that, stereotypes. And she said she's glad that Native people will finally have a voice in a presidential Cabinet.

MALILA: Because I think it's important for, like, all voices to be heard, not just one-sided stories.

MAHER: As Tuesday's hearing wraps up, Christie and Jazmine Wildcat back in Wyoming are taking notes not just on how Haaland responds to tough questions. It's not just about pushing back. It's also about standing up. Both young women are ambitious, and for them, ambition isn't a bad word.

J WILDCAT: I realize that, you know, I can do whatever I want. Christie can do whatever she wants. You know, she can eventually be a president because (laughter)...

C WILDCAT: It's just awesome because I can see myself in her and I'm like, OK, well, she put her mind to it. I aspire to be like that someday.

MAHER: As they pursue those goals, Christie and Jazmine Wildcat say Deb Haaland gives them a real person to admire and a real path to follow. For NPR News, I'm Savannah Maher in Albuquerque.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIHONI'S "RUBY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.