ST. PAUL Minnesota tribal leaders and Democratic lawmakers are celebrating the historic confirmation of Secretary Deb Haaland to head up the U.S. Department of the Interior, making her the first Native American to serve in the presidential cabinet in history.

The U.S. Senate voted 51-40 on Monday, March 15, to confirm Haaland to the role, which oversees American public lands, wildlife conservation, domestic energy and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Haaland is an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo and chaired the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands while representing New Mexico in Congress.

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, Minnesota’s junior Democratic senator, spoke for more than 10 minutes in support of Haaland’s nomination during Monday’s floor debate, saying “her life experiences make her perfect for this job.”

“As secretary, Rep. Haaland will play a consequential role in combating climate change. She will also honor tribal sovereignty and strengthen the government-to-government relationship between the United States and tribal nations,” Smith said. “And maybe, just maybe, her leadership will help us see the strength of Native women and all women, and not to be threatened by that. Our country will be better for it.”

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Melanie Benjamin, Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in eastern Minnesota, in a Tuesday, March 16, written statement celebrated Haaland’s confirmation as “a historic moment” that makes Indian Country proud.

“(B)ut Secretary Haaland will not just be working for our people. Secretary Haaland will be devoted to serving all Americans, just like she represented all of her constituents regardless of their background as a Member of Congress,” Benjamin continued. “What is good for American Indian people is good for all Americans."

Southwest of the Twin Cities metro, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Chair Keith Anderson said in a Tuesday statement that Haaland’s confirmation is “a long time coming.”

“It is important and meaningful to have a Native American perspective represented in both the president’s cabinet and the Interior Department, which works closely alongside tribal nations every day,” he said.

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and vocal advocate for Native representation throughout government, celebrated Haaland’s confirmation in a series of tweets on Monday. In one congratulatory tweet, she included a photo of the two women hugging.

“I love you so much, sister!” she wrote to Haaland. “You make us all so proud. We have your back. Always. Congratulations, Madam Secretary!”

In Minnesota’s Legislature, three women are enrolled tribal members or have Native ancestry: Rep. Heather Keeler, D-Moorhead, is an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux tribe; Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, D-Roseville, is a descendant of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe; and Sen. Mary Kunesh, D-New Brighton has Lakota heritage. In a joint written statement, the three legislators said Haaland is “an example of resilience and dedication to serve our greater Indigenous communities,” and said they hope her confirmation “will usher in a new era of representation and acknowledgment of Indigenous Americans."

“It is long past time that we value and empower Indigenous women, and actively encourage more representation of Indigenous peoples,” they said. “When our children and future generations look at this confirmation, they will see a pathway to leadership and opportunity that wasn’t there before.”

Disagreement over copper-nickel mining

Haaland’s confirmation process has faced ample resistance from Republicans, who have questioned her views on energy, land management and conservation, which they consider extreme. While Smith and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., both voted in favor of Haaland’s confirmation Monday, all four Republican U.S. senators from the Dakotas voted no.

In northern Minnesota, Haaland’s opposition to copper-nickel mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has drawn particular attention.

District 8 Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber actively worked against Haaland’s nomination and confirmation, privately urging his colleagues to oppose Haaland, then directly asking President Joe Biden to withdraw Haaland’s nomination entirely, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

In a Tuesday written statement to Forum News Service, Stauber’s spokesperson Kelsey Mix said Haaland holds “very radical positions for someone who now heads the Department with jurisdiction over federal lands and natural resources development.”

Five tribal nations are located within Stauber’s 8th Congressional District, and in a letter first reported by NBC News in January, tribal leaders said Stauber did not consult with them before opposing Haaland’s confirmation.

“(Y)our opposition to the first and only American Indian ever nominated to a cabinet position is likely to reverberate across Indian country,” they wrote at the time.

Smith during her Monday floor speech not-so-subtly jabbed Stauber for his opposition to Haaland, saying he “orchestrated a hit campaign” on Haaland. Citing other Republican lawmakers’ characterization as a “radical,” Smith said she “find(s) it difficult to take these Republican attacks at face value,” noting that Haaland was named the most bipartisan House freshman in the last Congress.

“Colleagues, I think we need to be honest with ourselves about what is going on here: Once again, a woman and a woman of color is being held to a different standard, and we need to name it,” she said. “We have got to come to grips with the reality that time after time, strong women, and especially women of color, are attacked when white men with the same views are welcomed to walk right through that door unopposed.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Smith noted, holds the same views on copper-nickel mining in the Boundary Waters as Haaland. Vilsack was confirmed by the Senate in February by a 92-7 vote, with support by all six senators from Minnesota and the Dakotas, and Smith claimed Stauber “happily supported” his confirmation from the House.

Mix refuted that characterization, saying Stauber was “pretty upfront about his concerns on Vilsack, particularly as it pertains to mining.” Stauber did not write any letters of opposition to Vilsack, as he did for Haaland, she said.

While Mix said Stauber disagrees with Vilsack on some issues, he agrees on others, particularly agriculture policies that are supported by Minnesota farmers across the political spectrum.

“The Congressman cannot say the same about Secretary Deb Haaland,” Mix said.