- By Arianna Amehae
WASHINGTON — When Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) returns to Wyoming this weekend he’ll be met by a familiar face, Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-NM). On two consecutive mornings this week, Barrasso, the Ranking Member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, aggressively led Republican attacks on Haaland during her confirmation hearing to become Secretary of Interior. Billboards raised by the Global Indigenous Council supporting Haaland’s confirmation will greet his arrival in his home state.
In line with his Republican colleagues on the committee, on the first morning of the hearing Barrasso failed to acknowledge the historic nature of Deb Haaland’s nomination. In Haaland, President Biden has selected the first Indigenous person to run the federal agency that has the most impact on the lives of the country’s Indigenous population. As a former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Barrasso’s deliberate omission was not only jarring, but set the tone for his GOP committee colleagues to follow.
Barrasso’s fealty to fossil fuel multinationals was on display during both sessions as he peppered Haaland with ostensibly the same questions parsed in transparent Hannity-speak, relying on a string of talking points and delivering them as if they had some basis in facts. As Senator James Lankford (R-OK) and Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) had in the first round of questioning, Barrasso presented any hinderance to extractive industry, particularly President Biden’s pause to review new oil and gas leases on federal lands, as being one that was going to affect tribes more than multinationals like Anadarko.
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming?” Barrasso patronizingly asked one of the first two Native American women ever elected to the US Congress, before producing a letter from the tribe’s business council that specified “delays to leasing have already negatively impacted small to mid-sized operators.”
Barrasso appeared outraged when Haaland responded, as she did during the previous session, that in respect to fossil fuel development, “President Biden’s agenda would be my agenda if confirmed.”
The Ranking Member then shifted into overdrive when he raised Haaland’s support for legalizing marijuana as a possible avenue of “diversification of revenue streams” to support public education in New Mexico, should fossil fuel extraction in her state constrict. Barrasso caustically asked if Haaland advocated selling marijuana as a new vocational path for extractive industry workers who might lose their jobs in a just transition to renewable energy.
Either dissatisfied with her answer or frustrated that he hadn’t rattled her, Barrasso berated Haaland.
“We know what your stance is on replacing the revenue from energy jobs - the jobs that power our economy and the energy that powers our country – and your preference is to turn to drugs!” he falsely exclaimed.
“I support Congresswoman Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior. She sees and will represent all of us,” was Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais’ measured response to the assault on Haaland.
Barrasso’s second day performance was a continuation of his prior, openly confrontational approach to Representative Haaland, which was marked by his apparent shock that after observing the Trump Administration for four years, Haaland had concluded on Twitter that, “Republicans don’t believe in science.”
“Do you think that as medical doctors we don’t believe in science?” Barrasso asked, referring to his and other committee members’ qualifications, which both in tone and timing was completely inappropriate, given that it came the morning after President Biden had led the nation in remembrance of a half-million Americans lost to COVID-19.
Rain Bear Stands Last, executive director of the Global Indigenous Council and one of Representative Haaland’s most outspoken defenders in the face of Barrasso’s assault during the hearing, responded with one of the more memorable retorts:
“As a medical doctor allegedly concerned with science, where was he and his doctor friends on the committee when Trump was suggesting injecting bleach to kill the virus, using drugs that were not FDA approved, and a whole panoply of unscientific nonsense promoted by the administration he faithfully followed, all of which had deadly consequences for the American people and particularly in Indigenous and minority communities?”
Arguably, Barrasso’s most egregious display of disrespect came during an exchange with Haaland over the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which, when chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, he sought to gut.
“I want to make sure that you care about the law,” Barrasso claimed, returning to her support for The Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act that Senator Steve Daines had browbeaten her over during previous questions. As the congresswoman began her response by stating her commitment to partnerships with stakeholders on ESA issues, Barrasso erupted. “I’m talking about the law!” he bellowed.
“I’ve witnessed Barrasso in senate committee meetings and hearings before and I cannot recall one occasion where he addressed a man with such incivility. This went way beyond impatience into patriarchal bullying and intolerance, but the question is, what prompted it? That he had an Indigenous woman sat before him who threatens the dominance of his fossil fuel benefactors?” asked Rain.
The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association (GPTCA), the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC), and the Blackfoot Confederacy submitted joint testimony to the EPW committee on October 10, 2018, which included an outline of Barrasso’s extensive association with Anadarko Petroleum and Gas, which describes itself as “one of the largest landowners and leaseholders in the state of Wyoming.”
“Deb Haaland believes that Wyoming is worth protecting,” commented Nedra Darling, NCAI award-winner and a veteran of the Interior Department with over 25 years of service as the Public Affairs Director for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.
Senators Lankford, Hyde-Smith, Hoeven, Risch, Cassidy, and Murkowski continued to question Haaland on her previous statements supporting green energy alternatives and climate change mitigation, as opposed to doubling down on fossil fuel dependence.
“There’s only a pause on the new gas and oil leases. Currently the existing valid leases are moving forward,” Haaland repeated. “This earth provides us with every single thing we need, and it has for millennia,” she added. “Our grandchildren should be able to rely on what they get from the earth as much as we do.”
Chairman Joe Manchin (D-WV), who committed to vote to confirm Haaland after the hearing, interjected, “We’re not shutting anybody down,” and emphasized that 26 million acres under federal jurisdiction onshore and 12 million acres off-shore, remain under lease for energy extraction.
“Why are oil and gas the first things that people think of when they think of Interior? The Department controls so many aspects of Indian Country and we are the only people that fall directly under its jurisdiction. I am excited to see Rep. Haaland lead the agency because she understands the unique relationship between Indian Country and the Department,” said Chairman Gerald Gray of the RMTLC and Little Shell Tribe.
Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) somehow kept a straight face while haranguing Haaland that the Biden Administration’s policy was “a politically driven, non-scientific agenda.” Senator James Risch suggested the same as he challenged her position on the Keystone-XL Pipeline, while ignoring scientific data on the potential for irreparable environmental damage from spills of Tar Sands crude carried by the pipeline.
As all of his GOP colleagues had before him, Risch vastly inflated the job potential of the pipeline. In its final analysis, the US State Department concluded that the Keystone-XL pipeline would create only 35 permanent jobs.
Representative Haaland consistently returned to the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) tragedy, but neither Risch, Barrasso, Lankford or Daines – all of whom represent states with significant Indigenous populations - responded. As they pressed for answers on extractive industry, they were silent on its impact on MMIW, which came on the day that two Enbridge Line 3 pipeline workers were arrested and charged with human trafficking. Line 3 bisects Anishinaabe territory in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“I’m sure for many Indigenous people who logged on to the livestream, it was like watching your auntie being verbally abused,” said Rain of the “boorish” conduct of some of the male GOP committee members.
Senator Steve Daines (R-MT), who has vocally led GOP opposition to Haaland’s confirmation, implied that shifting to renewable energy as Haaland advocated would result in “abysmal human rights and horrible environmental standards” being exacerbated in the Democratic Republic of Congo and China “as they produce the vast majority of cobalt used for renewable energy.” The previous day, Senator Lankford had tried to tie renewable energy to power outages in Oklahoma after the recent winter storm crippled the state.
“Did you look at the science and data?” Daines condescendingly asked the 35th generation New Mexican after returning to Montana from the Congo, to question Haaland’s commitment to “our Western heritage” of hunting and trapping. A Los Angelino who presents himself as a “fifth-generation Montanan,” Daines likes to kill things in his spare time. Entering his office is like a visit to Cabela’s, with the glass eyes of stuffed heads staring down your every move. Daines describes himself as a “sportsman” but the skinned wolf nailed to his wall suggests “trophy hunter” is a more apt designation.
“I am a Pueblo woman. We’ve been hunting wild game for centuries. That’s the reason I’m sitting here today because my ancestors sustained themselves through those practices,” Haaland replied.
Daines asked Haaland to retract her “unfortunate comment” that “Republicans don’t believe in science,” yet once again completely ignored the science referenced by Judge Dana Christensen in his September 2018 ruling in favor of tribal and environmental plaintiffs in Crow Tribe et al v. Zinke that returned the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to ESA protections, which was subsequently upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I’m not convinced” said Daines to Haaland of her assurances that she would be an inclusive Secretary of Interior for all Americans, and in words and demeanor retained his view that she is “radical.”
“Thank you, Deb Haaland, for being the strong, intelligent, honorable person you are, who very articulately schooled some ill-mannered old white men at your confirmation hearing,” said A. Gay Kingman, Executive Director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association.
Arianna “Tashi” Amehae is a freelance writer and filmmaker. She is the elected leader of the Young Roma Caucus of the International Romani Union. Her grandfather, Don Shoulderblade, is the founder of GOAL Tribal Coalition.
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