Rep. Haaland’s nomination as Interior secretary gives hope to Native Americans

The historic nature of iRep. Deb Haaland’s nomination to lead the Interior Department is big: she could be the first Native American cabinet secretary. Perhaps even more profound is what it means for indigenous communities whose lives are significantly affected by the federal agency.

For Regina Lopez Whiteskunk, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southwest Colorado, it means dealing with someone who understands that when she talks to tribes, she is talking to members of sovereign nations, as recognized by the U.S Constitution. Lopez Whiteskunk, a former tribal council member, said federal officials don’t always take the nation-to-nation relationship seriously.

“It would just be historic to have a conversation with someone who has that capacity and understanding of what tribal organizations are trying to express, trying to achieve within the Department of Interior,” said Lopez Whiteskunk, who lives in Towaoc.

When then President-elect Joe Biden nominated the New Mexico congresswoman in December, “aunties and grandmas and everyone were crying,” said Renée Millard-Chacon, an artist and the youth program coordinator at Spirit of the Sun, which works with indigenous communities in the Denver area and in eight other states.

“Representation matters,” said Millard-Chacon, who is of Diné, or Navajo, and Aztec descent.

Millard-Chacon said it matters that an indigenous person could soon head the federal department that she believes has dehumanized Native Americans through the decades.

“American Indians and Alaskan natives are the only human beings who are still managed by the Department of Interior, alongside public lands, fish and wildlife,” she added.

If Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, is confirmed as Interior secretary, she will be in charge of a department that manages more than 440 million acres of public lands, including national parks and monuments. It oversees energy development on public lands and waters, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.

And the Interior Department is involved with many aspects of the lives of Native Americans. The department oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, which holds billions of dollars generated from tribal lands in trust.

The relationship between the Interior and the nation’s tribes, 574 of which are federally recognized, has been fraught with troubles. The U.S. has not honored treaties signed by tribes. In 2009, the federal government agreed to pay $3.4 billion to settle a lawsuit by Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, that said trust funds from leases dating to the late 1800s had been mismanaged.

“Everything pretty much falls under the Department of Interior for tribal operations, so you can see the magnitude of what the Interior secretary is responsible for,” Lopez Whiteskunk said.

One of the issues Haaland will deal with is a review, ordered by Biden, of the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah by roughly 2 million acres. President Barack Obama established Bears Ears and President Bill Clinton established Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Lopez Whiteskunk is the former Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition co-chair. The Ute Mountain Ute tribe is one of five with connections to the area that worked with conservation and outdoor recreation groups and others to conserve the site.

Richard Henson, board chairman of both Spirit of the Sun and the Four Winds American Indian Council in Denver, said he is “ecstatic” about Haaland’s nomination.

“Since the beginning of the Department of the Interior, there have only been white people leading it,” said Henson, who, like Lopez Whiteskunk, has met Haaland. “We finally have a relative leading the department that has the entire oversight of tribes. I don’t think people realize how big of a deal it is.”

Henson said the nation-to-nation relationship that should exist between the U.S. government and tribes has been eroded through the years. He believes that Haaland will work to change that.

“She’s a fighter. She’s experienced. She’s accomplished and she’s smart. This isn’t just anyone walking into this office. She knows what she’s doing,” said Henson, a member of the Comanche tribe. He is also of Winnebago heritage.

Addressing climate change, conserving public lands and sites that are sacred to indigenous people and restoring lands and waters to health are areas that Henson, Millard-Chacon and Lopez Whiteskunk said are important for the Interior secretary to address. An immediate crisis in Indian country is the large number of indigenous women and girls who are murdered or go missing.

The U.S. Department of Justice has said that Native American women face murder rates many times higher than other women and are more likely to be victims of violence than non-native women. Haaland sponsored the Not Invisible Act, which after years of activism by indigenous women was signed into law in October 2020. It creates an advisory committee to make recommendations to the Interior and Justice departments.

“She brought, finally, attention to those families that have been looking for search and rescue for decades, that never had attention or awareness, protection or a conclusion,” Millard-Chacon said.

Just as the new law helps bring the crimes against indigenous women out of the shadows, Millard-Chacon believes appointing Haaland as Interior secretary will shine a light on Native Americans.

“She’s able to highlight what we see every day,” Millard-Chacon said. “I finally exist in the American identity.”

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