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 as 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.”
• 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 among all the parties involved, including the public and tribes. “I know that a lot of people rely on a 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 it 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.
• 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, for over a century, the state of Oklahoma illegally assumed criminal jurisdiction over the land in question.
• 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@example.com or submit a letter to the editor. Follow @grahambrewer
(Editor’s Note: This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on March 18, 2021: https://www.hcn.org/articles/indigenous-affairs-on-day-one-haaland-addresses-indigenous-media)