Last month, Representative Pete Stauber, who represents northeast Minnesota (including Mille Lacs, Pine, and Aitkin Counties) in Congress, sent a letter asking fellow lawmakers to join him in urging President-elect Biden’s transition team to withdraw the nomination of Representative Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior.
It’s no surprise that Rep. Stauber, a Republican, was opposed to Haaland’s nomination on policy grounds. But instead of consulting with the five tribes in his district, Stauber sent a strongly-worded statement attempting to drum up support for his opposition to Haaland’s historic nomination.
Rep. Stauber, a member of the House subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples, has no say in approving the nomination, which is the job of the Senate. Lacking the power to vote against her, he chose instead to attempt to scuttle the nomination, calling her a "direct threat to working men and women" and citing her support of the Green New Deal and record of environmental protection — a key duty of the Department of the Interior.
Stauber’s letter was met with strong condemnation from tribal leaders who pushed strongly for the nomination and rejoiced together when President-elect Biden agreed that Rep. Haaland was the right choice for the position.
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, serves with Stauber on the House Natural Resources Committee. If confirmed, she would lead the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Environmental Protection Agency and oversees tribal lands and other public lands in the U.S.
The leaders of the five Ojibwe bands in Stauber’s district (Mille Lacs, Fond du Lac, Leech Lake, Bois Forte, and Grand Portage) responded quickly to Stauber’s attack with a letter to the Congressman.
"As tribal leaders in the 8th District, we write today to express our profound disappointment after learning that you are leading an effort in the House of Representatives to oppose the appointment of Representative Deb Haaland as the first American Indian Secretary of Interior. This historic nomination is more important to us and all of Indian country than any other Cabinet nomination in recent history...."
"Most concerning is that you did not consult with us as the sovereign federally recognized tribal governments in your District in advance of initiating this effort that has such a direct impact on us as your American Indian constituents. Yet it appears you did consult with industrial interests in the 8th District."
Aaron Payment, chair of the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes (MAST), followed suit with a letter of his own, saying, "We are writing to voice our grave concern over your efforts to lead the campaign against Rep. Deb Haaland as Secretary of Interior, whom we very strongly support and have endorsed ... as the first Native American who would serve on the President elect’s cabinet in the history of our country. [Your] your demonizing of her in your letter as ’a direct threat to working men and women’ is not just offensive; it is hostile and irresponsible given the current state of crisis in our nation resulting from politicians vilifying one another..."
"MAST respectfully requests that you step back from your leadership role in this campaign against Rep. Deb Haaland as the first Native American Secretary of Interior."
In addition to signing the letter from the five tribes in Stauber’s district, Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin also wrote directly to Stauber emphasizing the lack of consultation and the tribe’s unwavering support of Haaland’s historic nomination. "We understand that you walk a fine line in the 8th district in balancing the interests of industry versus those of environmental interest groups, but as Native nations we are in a separate category as sovereign governments," said Melanie. "Your letter cites your concern about jobs yet Indian tribes are the largest employer in your district. In Federal-Indian affairs, consultation with tribal governments is the bedrock of our government-to-government relationship and that includes the Congress."
Melanie stressed the Band’s demonstrated willingness to work with Rep. Stauber and recognized his work on behalf of the Band. "Mr. Stauber, you personally know we have sought to work with you since your first day as a Congressman. You and your staff have indeed assisted us on some matters of importance. But on this matter of huge and historic importance to us, we learned only indirectly and after the fact that you have taken an action that is diametrically opposed to our long and publicly-stated, heart-felt position in strong support of Representative Haaland’s nomination to head the Interior Department. We are dismayed by this."
She concluded, "As our Congressman, we understand that on occasion we may have policy disagreements. We believe it is the antithesis of unity and respect for you to actively reject the nomination of a person we have worked so hard to see nominated,especially an historic figure like Representative Haaland, without consultation with us as your constituents. We respectfully request that you reconsider and abandon your work to oppose her historic nomination."
Stauber's letter and the tribes' response created a storm in the media in the days leading up to President Biden's nomination. Dozens of local, state, and national outlets covered the story, and Rep. Stauber came away looking insensitive to the concerns of tribes and his district.
While Mille Lacs and the other Bands in Rep. Stauber's district will continue to work with him out of respect for the office he holds, the damage his actions have done to his relationship with tribes will not be easily or quickly undone.