As President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet appointments roll out, environmentalists will see a victory with the appointment of Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) as interior secretary, making her responsible for nearly a half-billion acres of federal lands.
President Donald Trump’s secretaries have overseen a reduction in the size of national monuments created by President Barack Obama, opened national wildlife refuges to more energy development and removed iconic species from the endangered species list.
Haaland will surely provide different leadership at the Department of Interior (DOI), saying she will be a fierce voice “for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
Her appointment will be even more — celebrated by Native Americans because she is one of them. As a Native American, Haaland has a chance to make a difference for America’s poorest minority for whom poverty rates are as high as 25 percent and unemployment rates as high as 69 percent. Between 2013 and 2017, median income for reservation Native Americans was $29,097 and for all Native Americans (including those living off-reservations) was $40,315. This compares to approximately $66,943 for all Americans, $41,361 for African Americans and $51,450 for Hispanic Americans. To this add high rates of drug abuse, spousal abuse and alcoholism.
Haaland can make a difference at interior because her department includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which holds legal title to 56 million acres of reservation land. Since the Indian Wars of the late 19th century when tribes were forced onto reservations, the federal government has reneged on treaties, reduced the size of reservations and held tribes in the bonds of colonialism. In 1832, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall’s tribes as “domestic dependent nations” making the relationship between Indians and the federal government to be “like that of a ward to his guardian.”
These words continue to permeate Indian laws and policy. In particular, the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Burke Act of 1906 require that the DOI hold Indian lands in trust until it deems Native Americans to be “competent and capable” of owning the land.
Haaland’s first challenge is to free tribes from dependency on the federal government. Virtually all public services — education, police protection, low-income housing, food subsidies and infrastructure — are paid for through grants from the federal government. Hence, tribal governments, unlike cities, counties and states, depend on grants rather than revenue to fund government services.
As Bill Yellowtail, a Crow tribal leader, put it, “Dependency has become the reality of our daily existence. Worst of all, generation by generation it becomes what sociologists term learned helplessness — an internalized sense of no personal possibility, transmitted hereditarily and reinforced by recurring circumstances of hopelessness.” Haaland must help tribes wean themselves from dependency and find sources of revenue rather than grants.
Her second challenge is to abandon the racist notion of trusteeship. Native Americans are “competent and capable” when given an opportunity to be so. For example, through judicial and legislative battles, the Southern Ute Tribe in Colorado has loosened the hold of federal trusteeship and reclaimed control of their water, land and minerals and rights. Resource revenues go into the Southern Ute Growth Fund, estimated to be worth $4 billion, making each of the 1,400 tribal members a millionaire. The question is will a Native American interior secretary be able to wrest control of the Washington bureaucracy and give it to our continent’s first people.
Here’s another way Biden and Haaland can help restore tribal sovereignty. When (not if) the Biden administration creates national monuments to protect Native American antiquities as the Obama administration did, it should give management authority to tribes rather than DOI. In its co-management agreement with the National Park Service, the Navajo Nation has demonstrated that it is “competent and capable” of managing Canyon de Chelly National Monument.
If Haaland is to right the “long-running injustices toward Indigenous people,” she must change the image of the BIA from one of “bossing Indians around” to one that promotes tribal and individual sovereignty. Then Native Americans can thrive as they did before European contact rather than simply survive as wards of the state.