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The Department of the Interior Shaped My Life

For most Americans, the naming of a secretary of the interior is of little consequence. However, as a Navajo man, who holds this position has defined much of my life, and the recent appointing of Deb Haaland marks a groundbreaking moment.

Secretary Haaland not only inherits the long and tumultuous history of the position she has been appointed to, but also the uncertain questions of the role of federal lands in climate policy. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi And All House Democratic Women Pose For Group Photo At Capitol

The federal public lands that are so celebrated today came about in parallel with the Indian reservation system to cement the legal and physical separation of Indigenous peoples from their homelands. The Department of Interior was founded in 1849 to manage issues of domestic concern by the government, but now houses a number of agencies that oversee and manage the millions of acres of public lands violently disposed from Indigenous peoples centuries earlier. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is now a part of the DOI, manages a significant portion of the federal relationship with and the treaty obligations to Native Nations. Consequently, this relationship and who heads this agency directly impacts the millions of American Indians and Alaskan Natives, who are the descendants of this dispossession.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824 as part of the U.S. War Department, a precursor to the Department of Defense. Its placement is telling of how the government used the bureau to deal with what it thought of as the “Indian problems,” caused by settler violence and westward expansion. This path led to an increasing level of military engagement with tribes across the West, and consequently the signing of treaties intended to subdue Native peoples and to force the cessation of lands. The immense brutality and death caused by the civil war and the multitude of Indian wars in the decades that followed led to a shift in policies toward Native peoples: instead of complete extermination, policies began to focus more on reformation through assimilation. While the new approach seemed less bloody, the end goal of genocide continued as the U.S. government attempted to erase Native cultures and peoples through tools like boarding schools.

Haskell Indian Nations University, in Lawrence, Kansas, began as an Indian boarding school in the 1870s. Its purpose was to further goals of genocide through the cultural erasure of Native peoples by forcing the removal and assimilation of Native children into white culture. In the 1890s, the federal government issued a compulsory attendance law that allowed for the forced removal of Native American children from their homes. Many of these children, as young as toddlers, would never return home because of assimilation from disease. In other instances, children ran away from the school trying to reunite with their families, but often died from exposure, dehydration, or starvation. The museum on the Haskell campus displays handcuffs used to keep Native children from seeking freedom and escaping these policies.

My own mother was forced to attend boarding schools in the Navajo Nation and was physically beaten for speaking Navajo. When she was eight years old, my aunt ran away from the boarding school and covered nearly 50 miles from Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, toward her home in Red Valley, Arizona, before she was caught. It was from these experiences that my mother was driven to improve education for Native children after her. She was the only child in her family to go to college, and she pursued doctoral studies that focused on the role of language and culture in Native student achievement. She became the president of Diné College, the first tribally run university in the United States, and a political appointee in the Department of Education under the Obama administration, focusing on Tribal Colleges and Universities.

I was raised in Lawrence by my Navajo mother and Scottish and Romanian father. As a child, the juxtaposition between the history of Haskell Indian Nations University and the vibrancy of the young Native people pursuing a college education left me confused about how these two realities could exist on this small plot of land in eastern Kansas. Growing up, I would present my Certificate of Indian Blood to the Indian Health Service clinic on campus for routine dental and medical screenings, as promised in treaties from over a century earlier. 

Because of the unique relationship that the federal government has with American Indian tribes, and the fact that American Indians have a unique political and legal identity in addition to race, my healthcare and education were controlled by the policies of the Department of the Interior. The policies of Congress, the Department of the Interior, and consequently those of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, over the past century have defined Haskell and the many Native people within it by the (failed) policies, (lack of) funding, and multitude of (broken) treaty obligations.

A number of secretaries of the interior in recent decades have been more supportive of tribes and advanced beneficial policies; none have had to live with the effects of these policies after their tenure.

The agencies charged with carrying out treaty obligations, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have historically assumed a paternal relationship with Native Nations, dictating policies to tribes and assuming them incapable of managing their own affairs. In recent decades, though, the relationship has shifted to one more closely resembling self-determination, with the understanding that tribes are capable of governing themselves. My own experience at Navajo Preparatory School, a Bureau of Indian Education high school in Farmington, New Mexico, was very different and much more positive than what my mother and aunt encountered at boarding schools: it’s where I learned to speak Navajo and was taught about Navajo culture. 

The nomination of an American Indian to the role of secretary of the interior represents another shift in the relationship between Native Nations and the federal government. It’s been a long time coming and a reality that seemed impossible even just a few years ago. Deb Haaland, a Pueblo woman, is the most fitting to serve this role. 

Today, many of the current issues and politics surrounding public lands involve climate policy. Much of Secretary Haaland’s confirmation reflected this larger existential question, but the impact these policies will have on Native peoples was left out of the discussion. Implementing these climate-focused policies and balancing the multitude of stakeholder positions and complicated trade-offs will appear to be a compromise too far for some on the left and too radical for those on the right. In this mix sits the multitude of tribes: there are those who rely on fossil fuel development and extraction, like the Crow and Navajo Nations, who are heavily invested in coal development. And there are those experiencing the direct effects of climate change, like the many coastal Alaskan Native villages in the Arctic.

Increasing pressures to reduce carbon emissions will lead to an increased demand in the mining for minerals used in critical components, including power electronics, batteries, solar panels, and modular nuclear reactors. Compounding this demand, national security concerns have led to a more substantial discussion about how the United States should secure this critical mineral supply. Tribes, like my own, have had a tumultuous relationship with mining in the name of national security. My grandfather was one of many Navajo miners who extracted uranium ore for nuclear weapons and technology during the Cold War. Companies were allowed to operate with little safety precautions for their workers. And when the uranium market collapsed at the end of the war, many of these mines were abandoned, often poisoning communities nearby.

There is no one size fits all for Native Nations when it comes to economic development, energy, and climate policy. To avoid repeating the past, the government will need to embrace robust tribal consultation early on in creating and establishing these policies. Secretary Haaland understands this, and she committed to doing so. I have little reason to doubt her commitment, as her past includes working for her tribe, both as an administrator and the director of the tribe’s development corporation.

The challenge of this position, in this time, is significant. Secretary Haaland not only inherits the long and tumultuous history of the position she has been appointed to, but also the uncertain questions of the role of federal lands in climate policy. A number of secretaries of the interior in recent decades have been more supportive of tribes and advanced beneficial policies; none have had to live with the effects of these policies after their tenure. Auntie Deb, as she is known endearingly within many Native communities, is well aware of how her tenure will affect her life, those of her community, and Native people throughout this country. She has a stake in the game, and her future success will open the door for many other Native people after her.

Filed To: KansasArizonaPublic LandsUnited States
Lead Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty