By Chris Morrill, Executive Director
Earlier in March a historic nomination was confirmed as Secretary of Interior. Now former Representative Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, became the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. The symbolic importance of this confirmation is even more significant as Secretary Haaland will oversee the Department of Interior which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and over 480 million acres of public lands.
The United States has a dark history and sordid present when it comes to the treatment of native peoples and its relationship with tribal entities. By any fair reading of history, the U.S. government systematically killed and removed Indigenous people from their ancestral homeland, forced them to assimilate, deprived them of basic government services, reneged on negotiated treaties, and forcibly prevented them from practicing their cultural traditions.
This history has expectedly led to mistrust, skepticism, and animosity. Secretary Haaland’s appointment stands as an important milestone as we continue to grapple with the modern ramifications, both personal and systemic, of past racist attitudes, policy, and actions.
The most important point is that representation matters. As we’ve seen with many “firsts” in recent years, it is vital that children and many adults see themselves in the people who hold positions of power and influence. This can prompt greater engagement and symbolize additional integration into the power structures of our society and institutions.
However, the impact of Secretary Haaland’s confirmation will be anything but symbolic. For a long-time Native people have been denied a seat at the table where decisions affecting their lives were made. When a seat at the table was provided, it was too often just performative. By putting a Native person at the head of the table, these issues will be a part of the conversation.
We have not fully resolved our history. The election of Barak Obama didn’t signal an end to racism, but paradoxically showed our ability to progress and grow, and highlighted just how far we have to go. In the same way, the appointment of Deb Haaland will require us to fully reckon with our past and how much we have to do to move forward.
For some public lands advocates, this may seem or feel like a harder path. However, if we have a better vision for how our public lands are managed, we can only realize those visions by materially including everyone with a stake in our public lands into the conversation. I believe whole-heartedly that this approach will move us towards better public lands policy. In that world Indigenous people are an integral piece and leading partners in the future of our public lands.
The Secretary has a lot of hard questions to grapple with that are not explicitly Native-focused. How do our public lands deal with the climate crisis? What role does public lands management play (or not play) in the development of our fossil fuel future? How do you balance renewable energy development and important conservation protections? These hard questions won’t be answered simply by her presence. But her presence and the presence of many more like her, give me hope that we can find a more just, more representative, and hopefully a more sustainable future.
Please let me know your thoughts, comments, and questions by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.