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Deb Haaland’s Tough Road Ahead at the Interior Department

Haaland will have to overcome the Interior’s legacy of colonialism and fossil fuel plunder — as well as her boss’s moderate centrism.

Deb Haaland faces a difficult road ahead at the Department of the Interior, if her nomination by President-elect Joe Biden is confirmed. A tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo and a Democratic member of Congress from New Mexico, Haaland will be stepping into a minefield: a mixture of various aims imposed by her party’s centrist leadership, tribal interests, progressive causes, and the energy industry. For an Indigenous woman from New Mexico, it will be all the more fraught.

Take something as simple as Smokey Bear, the friendly cartoon character known for instructing children on how to prevent forest fires. “Smokey Bear is a white racist pig,” New Mexico Chicano activist Jerry Fuentes once said. For Fuentes, the cartoon represented Big Brother of the Forest Service, which had criminalized small-scale timber harvests and helped sever centuries-old ties Indigenous people and Mexican Americans had with New Mexico’s forests. While the Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture, Smokey appears on signs and placards in a number of federal lands, including holdings of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and the vast tracts overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

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