Interior Secretary Haaland already taking giant steps forward for Native America
Debra Haaland, Biden's Secretary of the Interior, has wasted no time in getting down to action in her new role. | Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP

The confirmation on March 15, and the swearing in ceremony on March 18, of dauntless Native American standard-bearer Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI) is truly historic for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that historically the DOI functioned as an arm of outright genocide in its early days.

In his 1851 Report of the Interior, the then-Secretary of the DOI Alexander H.H. Stuart wrote in reference to the future of Native people: “The only alternatives left are to civilize or exterminate.” Surely, Stuart must be, to use an old expression, “turning over in his grave” right now—and well he should. Native America has not only survived but has triumphed over his racist, genocidal objectives, which reflected the capitalist ideology of “Manifest Destiny.”

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe in New Mexico with an abundance of accomplishments, is in a position to roll back decades of defrauding, control, and iniquity perpetrated by DOI.

She has a Juris Doctor in Indian Law from the University of New Mexico (UNM) School of Law and, together with Sharice Davids of the Ho-Chunk Nation, is one of the first two Indigenous women elected to the U.S. Congress. Also, the Indian Law program of the UNM is considered one of the most prestigious in the country.

Laguna Pueblo, from which she hails, is a tribal nation with origins stretching back thousands of years. Located 45 miles west of Albuquerque, it consists of over 7,000 members. In the mid-1980s this writer spent quite a bit of time at Laguna with friends in the village of Seama while working as an attorney on the Zuni Reservation.

At her confirmation hearing, Haaland reflectively noted with eloquence and reverence the historical fact that the U.S. Capitol sits on the ancient homelands of three Native Tribes—the Piscataway, Nacotchtank, and Anacostan. This of course brings to mind that all of the United States is Indigenous land—indeed “Stolen Land”—and as one tribal representative put it, “how the U.S. got started” remains “the elephant in the room.” Of the Tribes mentioned by Haaland, only the Piscataway still exists as a tribal entity.

Her statements reminded this writer of signs at Indigenous-sponsored protests supporting immigrant rights that read, “No one is illegal on stolen land.”

Further, it must be noted that at the hearings, Haaland wore Indigenous dress which sent an empowering political message to Native people, in particular to Indigenous women. This also emphasized that the Indigenous are separate peoples with a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government that must be maintained and strengthened. The DOI is tasked to uphold the federal government’s sacred treaty obligations with 574 tribal nations.

In the course of her confirmation hearings, which began in February, Haaland spoke in Keresan, the tribal language of Laguna Pueblo. This pointed out the importance of Indigenous languages and immersion language programs initiated by many tribal nations. There are currently 150 Native tongues still spoken in the U.S. Historically, the federal government has spent more money purposely eliminating Native languages than saving them. This was also another function of the DOI.

Others in the Native community mused that Haadland’s position “gives her the power to right some very deep wrongs done to Native tribes.” Immediate concerns are the need for more land, assistance for tribal economies, and an easier process to petition for federal recognition, and, of course, the matter of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).

Haaland led the way with other Indigenous representatives—Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk Nation), Tom Cole (Chickasaw Nation), and Markkwayne Mullin (Cherokee Nation)—in passing legislation for MMIW in September of last year.

In reference to righting “some very deep wrongs,” there is still the issue of the defrauding of billions of dollars from Indian landowners in the Cobell v. Salazar case to the tune of, by very credible estimates, $179 billion by the DOI. This was pared down and settled by the Obama administration for the disgraceful, comparatively paltry sum of $ 3.4 billion, with $1.4 billion of that spread out to 490,000 individual Indians, in the form of checks ranging from $500 to $1,500—not even enough to buy a decent automobile. This fraud on Native landowners was for DOI oil, timber, and grazing contracts dating from 1887. This was the record of the DOI with the Indigenous and the continuing fraud in the disgraceful settlement orchestrated by Obama.

There are many roadblocks for Haaland to surmount on the path to continued progress. There will be those in government who will attempt to engage in open and behind-the-scenes obstruction. Several years ago, a friend of mine from the Ho-Chunk Nation recounted how he tried to communicate with his tribal representative and was taken aback when told he would have to go through an FBI security clearance to make contact.

A billboard in Billings, Montana, in February, displays support for Biden’s nomination of New Mexico U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior. Now confirmed, she is the first Native American to lead the agency that has broad oversight over tribal affairs and energy development. | Matt Brown / AP

Meanwhile, the new “fierce” warrior Cabinet Secretary certainly hit the ground running with a decision, just a few days after her swearing-in ceremony, withdrawing a Trump administration opinion that held the section of the Missouri River flowing through the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation—the land of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation—belonged to the state of North Dakota. For decades, legal precedent held that the Missouri riverbed belonged to the MHA Nation.

The reversal of the Andrew Jacksonian-type Trump decision which gave North Dakota ownership of mineral rights under that portion of the Missouri River flowing through the Fort Berthold Reservation was a clear and outrageous violation of tribal sovereignty that the Biden administration has vowed to uphold.

The Department of Interior under Haaland is getting off to a great start by sending a signal salvo in the 500-year-old Indigenous struggle for justice. Haaland has her work cut out for her, but she has the confidence of Indian Country and our unwavering, steadfast support. Further, we must be mindful that what is good for Native America is good for all of America.


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.