"The Department of Interior was essentially set up not to take care of Indigenous people -- it was set up to tear them down and disenfranchise them," Mr. Grijalva said in an interview. "To come full circle, historically, and to put an Indigenous person in front of Interior who can do the job -- you don't often get that kind of opportunity to make history."
Mr. Grijalva pushed back at the suggestion that Ms. Haaland was unqualified for the job.
"She's not window dressing," he said. "She's competent. She's a pro, both politically and in terms of policy, and as a member of the Resources Committee and chair of the Public Lands subcommittee she has had to endure the Trump administration's abuse of the Interior Department."
Ms. Haaland has made clear that she wants the job.
"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," she said in a statement.
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 argues that many of the issues affecting native communities -- such as low-wage jobs and violence against women -- afflict other groups as well.
In 2015, she became the head of the state Democratic Party and helped to flip the New Mexico state house to Democratic control.
A child of military veterans, she attended 13 public schools before graduating from high school, then started a salsa company and worked as a cake decorator before putting herself through college and law school using both food stamps and student loans.
But some people advising Mr. Biden are concerned about management at one of the federal government's most sprawling agencies, which oversees conservation and oil and gas drilling on public lands and off the nation's coastline; a vast network of dams and reservoirs across the West; the Fish and Wildlife Service, a major federal science agency; the U.S. Geological Survey; and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, which manages the financial assets of American Indians held in trust.
They also worry that the confirmation of Ms. Haaland to a cabinet post would temporarily diminish Democrats' already narrow majority in the House -- until a special election could be held in her Democratic district.
Those people back the appointment of Mr. Connor.
In an emailed statement, Mr. Connor wrote, "It would be an honor to serve in the Biden-Harris Administration and carry out the important work necessary to address the country's most pressing challenges."
Mr. Connor worked in the agency throughout the Clinton administration, including four years as director of the Secretary's Indian Water Rights Office, managing negotiations between tribes and the federal government on water issues. He later worked for former Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, on land, water, energy and Native American issues before returning to Interior during the Obama administration, where he became the first Native American to hold the No. 2 post.
"It's more about who has the qualifications than who is the public face," said Sianna Lieb, a progressive activist who co-launched the petition urging Mr. Biden to name a Native American as Interior secretary. "Having been in the Interior Department is a good start -- the qualifications are knowing how to run the department."