On day one, Haaland addresses Indigenous media

Tribal journalists given first opportunity to interview first Indigenous secretary of Interior.

 

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is sworn into office by Vice President Kamala Harris. Haaland’s family surrounds her, and her daughter Somah Haaland holds a Bible.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

On her first official day in office, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland met briefly with a group of 10 Indigenous journalists from national, local and tribal publications, including High Country News. The press conference, which was organized by the Interior Department and the Native American Journalists Association, appears to be a sign of the kind of increased access Haaland is willing to offer tribal media. As Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, has noted many times, both in her capacity as a member of Congress and a Cabinet nominee, she intends to make tribal concerns and regular consultation a significant part of her agenda. Here are some highlights from the half-hour session: 

  Haaland spoke directly about her desire to involve tribes in federal decision-making in a new and unprecedented way. Tribal governments have long felt overlooked when it comes to consultation on federal contracts and land-management decisions, and their opinions have often been outright dismissed. Haaland said that she is determined to end that cycle. “So often everyone thinks that the BIA is the only location where Indian issues should be addressed, and we know that’s not true. Indian issues need to be addressed across the entire government.” She added that it’s important to consult with tribes early in any process, before decisions are made, and to give them proper access — no longer restricting public comments to online forums, for example, particularly when the tribal community in question might have limited broadband access. “I want the era when tribes were on the back burner to be over.”

“I want the era when tribes were on the back burner to be over.”

  Tribal consultation also came up concerning the Biden administration’s commitment to protecting 30% of the country’s lands and water by the year 2030. Haaland touched on the necessity to revisit the boundaries of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, as well as of New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, an area that is part of some important ancestral homelands, including her own. Haaland said that management decisions have to be made between all the parties involved, including the public and tribes. “I know that a lot of people rely on pristine environment for the outdoor economy industry that is all over this country, so I think taking a balanced approach is absolutely something that we would like to do.”

   Assistant Secretary to the Interior Brian Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwe), also participated in the press briefing, and he indicated that the tribal recognition process — through which tribes seek federal recognition and access to federal funding and cultural protections — could evolve under Haaland’s tenure as well. “The department is consulting right now on a remand from two federal courts to look at whether tribes can petition again after they’ve been denied federal recognition from the department. We’ve gotten some feedback from the tribal consultation process and is something we are actively working on.” He added that the Biden administration is making it a priority to examine how lands are moved into federal trust, which is the process by which tribes turn private land into tribal-held land within their jurisdiction. 

On her first official day in office, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland met briefly with a group of 10 Indigenous journalists from national, local and tribal publications.
Graham Lee Brewer/High Country News

  Haaland shared an interesting anecdote from her early discussion with U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, regarding the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to restore the reservation of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation. The decision has rippled across eastern Oklahoma and will likely lead to the restoration of four other reservations. Haaland said that, after the decision, she called Cole to ask for his advice; an Oklahoma court decision this month reaffirmed the Chickasaw Nation’s reservation boundaries. “He said, ‘Let the tribes talk it out, let the tribes come to their own decision, they should not have any interference from Congress at this point. They need to be able to make their own decision.’ So, I want to respect tribes in every possible way.” Oklahoma’s attorney general, members of its congressional delegation, and some tribes, including the Chickasaw Nation, believe that Congress should play a role in resolving the lingering issues created when the state of Oklahoma, for over a century, illegally assumed criminal jurisdiction over the land in question.

 ‘Let the tribes talk it out, let the tribes come to their own decision, they should not have any interference from Congress at this point.’

  Haaland also made what appeared to be her first public comments about the citizenship of Freedmen, the descendants of those formerly held in the bondage of slavery by tribes; she has been criticized for co-sponsoring the reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act in 2019, which excluded Freedmen descendants from housing assistance. Haaland acknowledged the complicated nature of the issue, noting that even some of her immediate family members cannot enroll in her tribe due to the Pueblo of Laguna’s citizenship requirements. Haaland said the housing bill must be reauthorized constantly to assist tribes. “Largely, for me, it is seen as a positive thing, helping tribes to navigate those issues so that they can provide.” She said she’s open to speaking with tribal governments that want to discuss the issue and is eager to “respect the tribes’ sovereignty and authority to determine membership.”

  In her opening remarks, Haaland spoke of the devastating effects COVID-19 has had on Indigenous communities, noting that more than 80% of the Interior employees who died from the disease had worked in offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A spokesperson for Interior later confirmed that 26 of the agency’s employees had died from the virus, and that 22 of them had been working in Indian Affairs.

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.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...