Don Young’s life blends with the lives of Indigenous Americans.
He taught a fifth grade class of Alaska Native children, in the remote town of Fort Yukon, before his election to represent the state in the House in 1973, a post he has held since. The Republican congressman’s late wife Lu was a Gwich’in Athabascan from Fort Yukon who died in 2009. And Young, the gray-bearded former tugboat pilot known for incendiary remarks, aggressive outbursts and a decadeslong idiosyncratic streak, has been a steady voice highlighting the brutal conditions of life in remote Alaska, the state with the highest percentage of Native citizens, during the pandemic.
So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Young, who often goes his own way in Congress, endorsed a liberal Democrat, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, to become the first Native American to lead the Interior Department and introduced her at her confirmation hearing Tuesday.
“I have a theory, because I’m a mariner, that the captain of the ship has a right to choose who he has as his crew,” Young said Tuesday of the president’s power of appointment.
“You’ll find out that she will listen to you,” he said of his experience with Haaland. “But it’s my job to try to convince her that she is not all right, and her job is to convince me I’m not right.”
The endorsement from Young, who has served with 10 presidents and 15 Interior secretaries, could carry weight with Republicans hedging over confirming Haaland, whose task as Interior secretary would include work at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which provides services like education and health care, and oversees gaming businesses, for about 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Joe Manchin III, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is considering the nomination, cited Young’s endorsement when he announced Wednesday that he’d vote to confirm Haaland. The West Virginia Democrat’s vote, which had been in doubt, may be critical given the Senate’s 50-50 split.
The panel ended two days of questioning Wednesday.
‘Long time overdue’
Native Alaskan Morris Thompson led the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the state in the 1970s, and Tara Sweeney, another Alaska Native, led the bureau during the Trump administration. But no Native American has led Interior, established in 1849, as Young and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who also introduced Haaland, pointed out.
“She is an American Indian. I am quite proud of that fact. I’m close to my Alaska Natives and American Indians,” Young said about Haaland. The Senate should have confirmed a Native American to lead Interior years ago, he said. “It’s a long time overdue.”
There were about 114,000 people living in Alaska who identify exclusively as Alaska Native or American Indian as of mid-2019, according to state and federal data, out of about 731,000 total residents in the state. Those figures place Alaska Native or American Indian residents at about 16 percent of the state population.
It’s unusual for a member of the House to introduce a Cabinet nominee at their confirmation hearing. But Young and Haaland worked on legislation in the 116th Congress. They have co-sponsored legislation on bison, tribal regulations, and missing and murdered Indigenous women — along with Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who is Chickasaw, and others — and both served on the House Natural Resources Committee. Cole has also spoken in support of confirming Haaland.
The longest-serving current member of Congress and longest-serving Republican House member ever, Young was chairman of the Natural Resources Committee for the 104th through the 106th Congress, and he held the gavel of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for the 107th through the 109th Congress. Now, he is the No. 2 Republican on both committees.
Known for his sharp tongue and bombastic presence, Young bears a congressional résumé that is the stuff of legend and Capitol Hill lore. He brandished a knife against former Speaker John A. Boehner in the House chamber, then had the Ohio Republican as his best man in his 2015 wedding. He’s known to hand over as a joke his “favorite gavel” to visitors in his congressional office — its handle is a walrus penis bone — and in 2019 he head-butted an activist’s camera when asked about former President Donald Trump’s attempt to get Ukraine to interfere in U.S. elections, replying, “There you go.”
The comments followed by apologies have been plentiful too. He has said he was sorry for his use of the slur “wetback,” for shoving a reporter in 2019 and for insensitive speech about suicide to Alaskan high schoolers who had lost a peer to suicide.
Young also described the 2010 BP oil spill, which occurred in April of that year in the Gulf of Mexico, as “a natural” phenomenon rather than an environmental disaster, corporate safety failure or both.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, urged Haaland to make clear her support for three categories of projects in Alaska, including a series of leases in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge known as the 1002 Area.
Cows of the Porcupine caribou herd use the area as a birthing ground and to get away from mosquito swarms. Drilling in the area, along the Arctic Ocean in the state’s northeast, could disrupt the caribou, a segment of animals linked physically and culturally with the Gwich’in, a native group in Alaska and Canada.
Gwich’in have hunted the animals for eons. The caribou remain a part of the Gwich’in diet and provide resources for tools and clothing.
At a subcommittee hearing in March 2019, Young — who along with Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, has supported drilling in the refuge — bound himself too closely to the Gwich’in people for their liking, drawing a written rebuke after saying other native groups supported drilling in ANWR.
“These are the Alaska Natives directly affected, not the Gwich’in. That’s my tribe. My wife was Gwich’in, my daughters are Gwich’in,” Young said, furious and shaking his finger. Later in the hearing he shook his fists at Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., who opposes ANWR drilling.
Young is not part of their tribe, Gwich’in chiefs said in a letter that April. “Mr. Young isn’t Gwich’in, and is in fact originally from California, not Alaska. Having a native spouse does not confer tribal membership, nor does it provide an inherent understanding of native issues or a right to speak on behalf of tribes.”
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said Tuesday that her committee supports Haaland, who did not indicate a position during the hearing on drilling in the refuge.
“The Gwich’in people have a spiritual and cultural connection to the Porcupine caribou that spans thousands of years,” Demientieff said. “Our way of life, our survival is interconnected to the land, water and animals,” she said. “Today we honor the woman set to be the first Native American in history to fill a presidential cabinet position, and look forward to working with her to ensure that Indigenous voices are heard and our human rights respected.”