Tribal leaders respond to the idea of an Indigenous Interior secretary

Representation is important, and so are policy decisions impacting tribes on the ground.

 

Editor’s note: On Dec. 17, President-elect Joe Biden announced Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) as his choice for Secretary of Interior, marking the first time a Native American will serve in the position, if confirmed by the Senate.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to make his administration the most diverse in history, a promise that so far he has fulfilled with several key appointments. For weeks now, momentum has been building behind a push for the Department of the Interior to be run by an Indigenous person for the first time in history. Dozens of tribal leaders have called upon Biden to appoint U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M, an enrolled tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo. 

Beyond the obvious symbolic importance of having an Indigenous person lead Interior, a department with a long history of defying the best interests of tribal nations, the possibilities such a position would bring for tribal administrations and citizens alike are endless. Native leaders and advocates are hoping that a Haaland appointment would result in improved tribal consultation on everything from land protections to how agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, interact with tribal communities. As the country awaits Biden’s decision, Native communities are bracing for what could prove a seismic change in the way the federal government treats the interests of Indian Country.  

Dozens of tribal leaders have called upon Biden to appoint U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M, an enrolled tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo.

“It will be a moment to exhale for tribal leaders,” said Judith Le Blanc, a citizen of the Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma and director of the Native Organizers Alliance, a national Native training and organizing network. An Indigenous person leading Interior, she said, would mean having someone who understands the legal and inherent rights of Indigenous peoples to govern their own lands.

“We’re the only peoples in this country who have a collectively owned land base that has been self-governed since the beginning of time,” Le Blanc said. “To have someone who understands that historic fact and therefore the rights and responsibilities to consult and to discuss before a decision is made that will affect treaty lands will be amazing. It creates opportunities and possibilities that tribal leaders will have to step into.” 

“It will be a moment to exhale for tribal leaders.”

The possibility of an Indigenous person leading Interior comes after an election in which Indigenous voters supported the Biden/Harris ticket in critical states like Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin. As IllumiNatives — a nonprofit working to increase Native visibility — put it in a social media post, “Joe, Native people showed up for you. Now, show up for them.” If Haaland — or someone like Michael Connor, a member of Taos Pueblo and former deputy Interior director, whose name has also been floated as a possible nominee — were to run the department, it would have a significant impact on Indian Country policy for the next several years not only for department policies and representation, but also for on-the-ground realities.

Under the Trump administration, environmental laws were significantly weakened, protections of places like the Tongass National Forest were rolled back and large-scale, high-impact projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines were expedited. Many of those policies included a rushed — or, in the case of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, nonexistent — tribal consultation process. While all bureaucracies have flaws, both Haaland and Connor understand that including tribal nations in a government-to-government consultation process is non-negotiable. They could also reverse some of the Trump administration’s controversial decisions. Whoever is chosen, the stakes are high.

The Yurok Tribe was one of a host of tribes to sign a letter to President-elect Joe Biden, urging him to choose Haaland. The tribe has had a protracted battle with the federal government over keeping enough water in the Klamath River to support their lifeways and the river’s salmon population. In 2001, a government decision caused the largest fish kill in Yurok and U.S. history. Vice Chairman Frankie Myers says the representation and experience that would come with Haaland as an Indigenous person and lawmaker would be a welcome change: “Ensuring that Indigenous voices are at the highest level of government, specifically when it comes to resources, is critical for us moving this country in a better, more positive way.”

 “I can’t believe it has taken this long. We have never been included in decisions that will affect our future.”

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, agrees. In November, the Trump administration announced that it would auction off oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge just two weeks before Biden takes office. The refuge, which lies within the ancestral lands of the Gwich’in, supports the sensitive populations of Porcupine caribou, polar bears and walruses. The Gwich’in Steering Committee has filed numerous lawsuits to stop the sale. “This current administration has done nothing but disrespect and violate the rights of our people,” Demientieff wrote in a statement to High Country News. As for an Indigenous leader of Interior, “I can’t believe it has taken this long. We have never been included in decisions that will affect our future.”

While Native voters tend to lean left, Indian Country issues on the Hill have typically found support with both Republicans and Democrats. The six Indigenous people who will join the next Congress are split evenly between the parties. And even though the political atmosphere has been considerably polarized under the Trump administration, the prevailing sentiment is that Haaland’s ability to work across the aisle will keep Indian Country policy from becoming a politically divisive issue.

“There’s a reason why people like (Republican U.S. Reps.) Don Young and Tom Cole have publicly spoken out in very positive ways regarding Deb,” said Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation and an Obama appointee who was the first Indigenous person to represent the U.S. on the United Nations Human Rights Council. “Because they’ve worked with her and know she’s willing to put the party politics aside and get pragmatic about challenges.”

“Because we understand that Native American issues are not a matter of conservative versus liberal, we have accomplished a great deal together,” said Rep. Cole. Out of all representatives in the House, Haaland’s bills have had the most bicameral support, and often bipartisan. And the political allies and partners she’s made in Congress have some predicting that this would translate to consensus building across the government on issues affecting Native people.

“Oftentimes, Interior is looked as the agency that handles Indian affairs,” said Kim Teehee, the Cherokee Nation’s congressional delegate. “We have HUD (Housing and Urban Development) that handles Indian housing, we have the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) that handles broadband, education, the USDA (Department of Agriculture). There is such a cross-cutting nature of Indian Country issues, and I think she has the unique ability as a Cabinet secretary to convene the agencies.”

One non-Native whose name has been floated for the position is retiring Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, who has long been a champion of Indigenous affairs in Congress. His father, Stewart Udall, was secretary of Interior from 1961-1969 under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. A number of progressive Native-led organizations have called on him to remove his name from consideration. When asked what it could mean for an Indigenous person to lead Interior, Udall told High Country News that “Native Americans should be in high positions throughout government in the White House and various agencies – it’s not just about the Interior Department, adding that the next secretary must prioritize tribal nation’s needs with inclusive consultation, and put in “the hard work to make sure Native voices are front and center throughout the department.”

Graham Lee Brewer is an associate editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.  

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News.

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