WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has chosen Representative Deb Haaland, Democrat of New Mexico, to lead the Interior Department, according to people familiar with the decision, a move that would make history: If confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first Native American appointed to a cabinet secretary position.
Ms. Haaland would not only head the federal agency most responsible for the well-being of the nation’s 1.9 million Indigenous people, but also would play a central role in implementing Mr. Biden’s ambitious environmental and climate change agenda. As head of the agency that oversees 500 million acres of public lands, including national parks, oil and gas drilling sites, and endangered species habitat, she would be entrusted to restore federal protections to vast swathes of land and water that the Trump administration has opened up to drilling, mining, logging and construction.
In addition, she would oversee the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, which manages the financial assets of American Indians held in trust.
“It would be an honor to move the Biden-Harris climate agenda forward, help repair the government to government relationship with Tribes that the Trump Administration has ruined, and serve as the first Native American cabinet secretary in our nation’s history,” Ms. Haaland said in a statement.
Ms. Haaland is a citizen of Laguna Pueblo, one of the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes.
Historians and tribal leaders said that appointing a Native American to the role would be a milestone in the United States’ scarred history with its Native people.
The Interior Department has for much of the nation’s history governed federal lands and often dislodged and abused Native Americans. In 1972, about 500 Native American activists took over the department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., protesting living standards and broken treaties.
“It would be a huge moment in American history to have a Native person running our national parks, wildlife, relationships with tribes, antiquities sites,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who has written extensively about presidents’ environmental records. “It’s a long time coming.”
Ms. Haaland was not seen as Mr. Biden’s initial choice to run the agency. In the days after the election, he was believed to have been leaning toward Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico and longtime friend who has spent his career pushing to conserve wilderness, according to people close to the transition team.
But a coalition of Congressional Democrats, Native Americans and Hollywood celebrities kicked off a campaign urging Mr. Biden to appoint Ms. Haaland. Actor and environmental advocate Mark Ruffalo posted a video on Twitter with tribal leaders speaking in support of Ms. Haaland. And the Lakota People’s Law Action Center launched a petition, supported by more than 120 tribal leaders, in support of Ms. Haaland.
“Like no year prior, 2020 has shown us what happens when we fail to see the importance of putting proper leaders in position to safeguard society,” the petition read.
Ms. Haaland has already made history once. In 2018, she and Sharice Davids of Kansas became the first two Native American women elected to Congress.
Ms. Haaland campaigned in 2018 against the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies and promoted Indigenous sovereignty as a “35th-generation New Mexican.” She has said that many of the issues affecting native communities, such as low-wage jobs and violence against women, afflict other groups as well.
Over the past two years, Ms. Haaland has served on the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department.