AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Julian Brave NoiseCat is vice president of policy and strategy with Data for Progress; narrative change director of the Natural History Museum; and a fellow of the Type Media Center, NDN Collective, and the Center for Humans and Nature.
When Congress considers Joe Biden’s nominee for Interior secretary this week, Joe Williams Jr. will be following the proceedings closely from Saxman, Alaska. Committee hearings aren’t usually on the radar in this small town more than 3,000 miles from Washington, D.C.; this time of year, its 353 residents are typically paying more attention to the sea lions passing through. And Williams, a retired, 76-year-old, conservative born-again Christian, doesn’t usually pull for Democrats.
But this nominee is Deb Haaland, the second-term congresswoman who represents New Mexico’s first district. If confirmed, Haaland, a tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, would become the first Native American Cabinet secretary in United States history. Williams was also an Indigenous first, albeit on a smaller scale: In 2005, he became the first Alaska Native elected mayor of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, the second most populous borough in the state.
And like many Native people across the country, Williams, a Tlingit tribal elder, is all-in for Haaland. Over the past two months, he and thousands of others have been making phone calls, sending emails and writing letters telling their tribal leaders and congressional representatives to support the Democratic pick to oversee federal lands, natural resources and American Indian affairs. “I fully, 100 percent support her appointment,” Williams said of Haaland, despite the fact that she’s a progressive and he’s been voting Republican since the Reagan years. “And the reason for that is I don’t have to explain to her what it means to be an Indian.”
Interior nominations are usually pretty uncontroversial affairs: The last six presidents all had their first choices for the job confirmed with the support of more than two-thirds of the Senate. But this time is gearing up to be different. Republicans have dug in against Haaland over her environmental views. Red-state senators have labeled her a “radical” and called her nomination “alarming,” vowing that they’ll try their best to block her from getting the job.
But opposing Haaland could come at a cost. Native voters are an often overlooked but surprisingly important swing constituency, less reliably partisan than other racial groups in the United States. They helped determine the outcome of elections in Arizona, Wisconsin and North Carolina in 2020 and may very well help pick the congressional winners in those same states and others in 2022. In lining up against Haaland, Republicans are promising to take down a nominee seen as pathbreaking for her people.
Some senators from the GOP aren’t thinking twice about it. But for a few, the risk is more immediate. One of those is Williams’ senator, Lisa Murkowski. Particularly if coal-friendly Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia goes against Biden on Haaland’s nomination—he’s still publicly undecided—the moderate Murkowski could be a deciding vote. Politically, she’s in a squeeze: Her state depends on drilling, and she raised nearly three-quarters of a million dollars from the fossil fuel industry in 2020—more than from any other sector. But she also has close ties to Native communities; Alaska has the most voting-age Natives per capita in the country. And to add one more twist, Murkowski is one of only a few members of Congress with familial ties to a tribe. In 2011, she was formally adopted by one of the Tlingit clans in her home state.
Like many politically active Native Alaskans, Williams doesn’t see his people in conflict with Murkowski, who declined an interview for this story: When push comes to shove, he expects, the senator will get behind Haaland. With the votes to confirm Haaland not yet in hand, Murkowski’s predicament could become Indian Country’s hope.
Williams’ name in Tlingit, the tongue of the first people of southeast Alaska, is Kakéskée (pronounced “Ka-kish-kay”). It means, roughly, “Dirty Mouth,” and describes the way that a salmon, freshly fished from the sea and bloodied, hangs from the beak of an eagle. Among the Tlingit, Williams’ name signals that, like his mother, he is a member of the Eagle tribe and Killer Whale clan.
Just as much as eagles and killer whales, politics is in Williams’ blood. Back in the day, his parents were grand officers in the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood—the oldest Indigenous civil rights groups in the country. His family used to host Alaska’s first senators, Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening, both Democrats, at their house in Saxman for dinner. Like his father, Williams identified as a Democrat when he was young; however, he gave up on the party in the 1980s when he went away to Alaska Methodist University in Anchorage, he says, though he can’t remember why, exactly. The change in party didn’t change his commitment to Alaska Natives. In 2018, after decades of public service and civic involvement, including a year spent as borough mayor, city mayor and tribal president—the only Alaskan to have held all of those titles at once—Williams achieved his lifelong aspiration to become the grand president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood.
Murkowski’s political story arose not far away, and is somewhat entwined. She was born three miles up the road from Saxman in Ketchikan. Her parents, Nancy and Frank, went to the same high school as Williams and ran PeaceHealth, a foundation that supports local hospitals, for which Williams also served as president. Frank, who was a senator from 1981 to 2002, appointed Lisa to be his successor when he won the governorship and vacated his seat in Congress. When, in 2010, the younger Senator Murkowski lost the Republican primary to Tea Party candidate Joe Miller, she launched a write-in general election campaign. And in a state where Natives make up more than 17 percent of the electorate, Murkowski needed their votes. So, like her former colleague Ted Stevens, an Alaska senator who had dinner at Williams’ house twice, and like Bartlett and Gruening a generation before, Murkowski’s campaign committee requested an invite to join in the long tradition of Alaskan politicians dining with a Williams in Saxman.
Williams hosted Murkowski and more than 30 members of her entourage in his partially renovated Housing and Urban Development home—pretty much standard issue on reservations across country—the dining room floors still half-finished in plywood. Before the meal, he sang a Tlingit welcome song and prayed for a good meeting. During the feed of smoked salmon, a Tlingit staple, and hors d’oeuvres, they talked about their families. Williams’ wife Suzi has one strict rule: no politics in her house. After the meal, Williams prayed again, this time for Murkowski’s fortune and wellbeing. When they were finished eating, he took Murkowski’s yard signs to every house in town.
Even though most Alaska Natives are Democrats, in villages like Saxman, they turned out for Murkowski that November. While Alaska Natives might have felt they could trust Murkowski because she took the time to get to know them, this was also a strategic vote: Miller, her opponent, was openly hostile to Native people, and the Democrat on the ballot didn’t stand a chance of defeating him in the conservative state. When Murkowski became only the second senator in United States history to win a write-in campaign, Williams and Alaska Natives across the country rejoiced in her comeback reelection. “All I’ve got to say is praise God for that,” he said.
At the start of Murkowski’s second full term in 2011, the late Selina Everson of Angoon adopted Murkowski into the Deisheetaan (Beaver) clan of the Raven tribe, an honor that recognized the senator’s bond and leadership to the Tlingit. At an event held to thank voters at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall in Juneau, Everson bestowed her esteemed mother’s name, Aan shaawaatki'—Lady of the Land—on Murkowski. Because Williams’ wife is a Raven, the adoption made Murkowski Williams’ sister-in-law by clan, and virtually every Tlingit’s auntie.
Adoption, as you might imagine, isn’t something the Tlingit do willy-nilly. Traditionally, Tlingit adoptions occur across clans and tribes—so if you’re an Eagle, you adopt Ravens or non-Tlingit, and if you’re a Raven, you adopt Eagles or non-Tlingit. The bonds formed through the rite are designed to endure across generations. “Blood relationship is real thick,” explained Williams. “And in the Tlingit culture, tribal relationship is thicker than blood. You get to clans: Clan relationship is thicker than tribal relationship, which is thicker than blood relationship.”
“It is an honor and a tribute, unlike anything that I have possibly ever been recognized with,” said Murkowski at a Senate Committee of Indian Affairs Hearing in 2015. “And it’s a responsibility that comes with a name that I take very, very seriously.”
The Alaska senator has repaid the honor with political attention; in public she speaks eloquently about the myriad issues facing Native people, including the disproportionate tragedy of coronavirus on reservations, the scourge of suicides in Native communities, the unkept promises to Native veterans and the decline of tribal languages. Murkowski was the Senate lead for Savanna’s Act to improve data collection about violence against Native women—a bill that Haaland co-sponsored in the House. She was a co-sponsor of the Not Invisible Act to coordinate actions against the murder and human trafficking of Native people—a bill that Haaland led in the House. She often sports Native necklaces and earrings on Capitol Hill and has taken to wearing masks with Tlingit designs during the pandemic. Even her unusual vote against Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation aligned with the preference of the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Murkowski is the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs—a committee she has been a member of since her first day in Congress. “Even in the most partisan of Senate environments it is fair to characterize the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs as one of the most productive committees in the entire Senate,” she said back in 2011. “The secret to our success is that we work together, across party lines, all of the time, for the benefit of Native people.”
But crossing those lines is about to become harder as her partisan tribe, fellow Republicans in the Senate, grow increasingly vocal in their opposition to Haaland’s confirmation as Interior secretary.
Republicans are looking to turn Haaland’s confirmation hearing into prime-time viewing material for Fox News. Senator John Barasso of Wyoming, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement that the first Native Cabinet nominee’s “radical views are squarely at odds with the responsible management of our nation’s energy resources.” Senator Steve Daines of Montana, who sits on the same committee, tweeted that he’s “deeply concerned” with the New Mexico congresswoman’s support of the Green New Deal and that he will try to block her confirmation. Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, also on the committee, told E&E News that he would challenge Haaland on the Biden administration’s plan to stop issuing new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
For American Indians, the nomination of Haaland has a special symbolic power: A Native woman poised to lead a department once run by a man who declared its mission was to “civilize or exterminate” Native people. It strikes some as a rich irony that Republicans are now describing her as an existential threat to their way of life.
“They don’t know what it means to be an Indian,” Williams said of these elected officials from his party. “An old Indian proverb would say: ‘walk a mile in his moccasins.’ Then maybe they’d come to that understanding.”
Normally, voting against the nomination of a progressive environmentalist would a be a no-brainer for an Alaska Republican like Murkowski. Her state more or less runs on oil, which most years contributes as much as 90 percent of Alaska’s Unrestricted General Fund. Only about 3 percent of Alaskans work in the oil and gas industry, but all residents who have lived in the state for a year and intend to stay get paid an annual dividend based on industry revenues. In 2020, that was $992 in every Alaskan’s pocket. The Biden administration’s policies are designed, in part, to move beyond this oil-centric status quo, and Haaland, who went to the camps erected in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 and cooked green chili stew for demonstrators, has been an outspoken champion of them. If she weren’t Native, this would probably be an easy decision for Murkowski. But the senator’s personal connection and electoral dependence on Native voters makes it a lot more complicated.
And American Indians are taking notice of the fight. “Opposition to her appointment would send a message that we’re not worthy of such a high office,” said Paulette Moreno, the Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. “And that message is not one that should be shared with the world.”
Across the country, Haaland is beloved by First Peoples. Her nomination has galvanized the Indigenous with the hope of representation, and it’s not lost on these voters that the leaders of the Grand Old Party are lining up against them. The National Congress of American Indians has written a letter to senators, urging them to confirm Haaland and has created a template so that tribal leaders across the country can do the same.
When a Republican House member urged Biden to withdraw his nomination of Haaland, five tribes in the congressman’s district wrote him a letter saying: “This historic nomination is more important to us and all of Indian country than any other Cabinet nomination in recent history. … Your opposition to the first and only American Indian ever nominated to a Cabinet position is likely to reverberate across Indian country.”
Gerald Gray, the Chairman of the Little Shell Tribe of North Dakota, criticized Senate Republicans’ statements and said that it was “time to put the partisan politics aside, stop calling every Democrat a ‘radical’ and get things moving in Interior.” In Daines’ state of Montana, where, like Alaska, Native voters comprise a significant part of the electorate, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council erected two billboards last week emblazoned with Haaland’s image: one in Billings and another in Great Falls. “Deb Haaland’s confirmation brings hope for Indigenous communities and the United States to have a true steward of natural resources that is in this high-ranking position,” said Ronnie Jo Horse, executive director of Western Native Voice, a Native voting rights group active in the state. “Montana’s Native voters are watching,” added her deputy Tajin Perez. “Senator Daines has the opportunity to do what’s right for all Montanans and all Americans.”
More Natives, like Williams’ old friend Ron Allen, the chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe and former president of the National Congress of American Indians, who once served as an advisor to John McCain’s presidential campaign, are reconsidering their support for Republicans. “My folks, they would refer to me as the token Republican Indian,” he said. “I would joke back with them that I switched to ‘I’ for ‘Indian.’” Perhaps that’s a sign of the times. The Native American Caucus in Congress is comprised of six members: three Democrats, three Republicans. And Native voters are less likely than voters of other races to identify with either party. But, as Republicans move against Haaland and Indian Country, that partisan balance may be slipping into the past, as Native voters increasingly align themselves with the Democratic Party and as tribal leaders find their conservative friends in Washington aren’t so friendly when it counts.
So far, the Tlingit and Alaska Natives I talked to aren’t too worried about Murkowski. She’s a senator, maverick and auntie because of them, after all. Since voting to convict Trump, she has faced threats of censure from Republicans in her home state, and former governor Sarah Palin is reportedly considering a primary challenge.
With all that in mind, the Tlingit and Indigenous insiders I interviewed expect Murkowski to ask Haaland some tough questions about energy policy, but ultimately to honor Biden’s choice for Interior. “I believe that she’s a woman of integrity and that she’s fair and that she will balance out the weight of the message of sister Haaland’s potential nomination,” said Moreno. Still, they’re not taking any chances, writing and calling Murkowski’s office to express how meaningful this vote is to them.
With Democrats out of contention in the state, Alaska Natives have little incentive to vote out a political ally. But for some, a betrayal of this significance could throw the very strength of her allyship into doubt. Native voters know too that with Murkowski already risking yet another right-wing challenge, the senator has little incentive to offend them, since she likely needs their support to prevail in the state’s new open, top-four primary and ranked-choice general election system. Some of the Alaska Natives I talked to for this piece said they would be willing to withhold their votes in 2022, or could see their people doing so, if Murkowski doesn’t vote to confirm Haaland.
“I’m trusting that she will do the right thing because she’s keenly aware of what the Indian people have been putting up with for years,” said Williams, referring to the long history of Native people being slighted by the federal government and by both parties, which has made many wary of politicians.
The retired tribal leader last saw his sister-in-law by clan in August of 2019. She brought up coming over for dinner again, according to Williams, and while he said he will be disappointed if Murkowski doesn’t vote for Haaland, the senator has an open invitation to return, and they aren’t allowed to discuss such matters in Suzi’s house anyways. Politics may run in Murkowski and Williams’ blood, but family, tribe and clan run thicker. As for the rest of Murkowski’s party who don’t share that kind of kinship, well, Native voters may not be so forgiving.