Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblos, would wield a lot of power as Interior secretary. She’d also have a lot on her plate having to do with Indian Country.

More below on the issues important to Native Americans, but first let’s get a sense of that authority.

The Interior Department manages 500 million acres — more than Texas, California, Montana and New Mexico combined — or one-fifth of the land in the United States. It employs 70,000 people. 

The agency’s 2020 budget was $12.6 billion, with another $9.6 billion for specific activities outside the annual appropriation.

U.S. Department of Interior in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)

DEPARTMENT OF EVERYTHING ELSE

And the range of the department's operations is mind-boggling.

At a glance, headlines involving the department over the past few months have ranged from wildfires and the reopening of the Arlington Memorial Bridge, to the return of Mesa Verde artifacts from Sweden.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which falls under Interior, is collaborating with NASA on space policy.

The Interior Department recently reduced protections for migratory birds, and has a sale of wild burros and horses coming up.

It’s also working to get some oil and gas lease sales in a wildlife refuge wrapped up before the new president takes office.

Oil and gas, wildlife refuge.

Hmmm. Those don’t seem to go together. And that illustrates the contradictory nature of the department.

The Interior Department designates endangered species such as polar bears, while opening their habitat to mining and energy development. National parks preserve natural and cultural treasures while promoting recreation and public access to them.

AS FOR NATIVE AMERICANS

The agency oversees prominent departments such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education while fulfilling the nation’s trust responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives. It’s also been caught charging non-Natives below-market-value prices for timber and grazing rights, then mismanaging and losing billions in tribal funds.

The department intersects with tribes over water rights, gaming and repatriation of human remains, among dozens of other activities.

It administers 55.7 million acres held in trust for Native Americans, and manages $2.5 billion for tribes.

Perhaps most important to Natives, the Interior Department holds the key to getting ancestral lands and sovereignty, or self governance, restored to Natives. Indian Country is hoping a new hand at the helm will help the agency take a different tack in those and other areas.

PROTECT OUR TREASURES

Native American Rights Fund Director John Echohawk, Pawnee, said Haaland, as secretary, can immediately set a new direction to the benefit of Natives by recommending Biden restore acreage to the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. 

On Dec. 28, 2016, then-President Barack Obama designated nearly 1.4 million acres for protection as the monument, in accordance with the Antiquities Act of 1906

President Donald Trump later reduced the size of the monument by 85 percent, or 202,000 acres, the first such reduction of that magnitude and a move that several tribes, including the Navajo Nation, are contesting in court.

Bears Ears National monument (Wikimedia)

The area has an estimated 100,000 archeological sites, including cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and rock paintings that are sacred to many Native Americans. Those and other artifacts shed light on how Indigenous peoples have lived in the region for some 12,500 to 13,000 years.

Related:
— Navajo Nation renews call for the protection of 1.9 million acres of land under the Bears Ears National Monument
— Million-dollar campaign launched to protect Bears Ears
— 'I’ll be fierce for all of us'

Tribes still use the area for ceremonies, and to gather plants for basket-making, medicine and food. Five tribes — the Navajo, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi Tribe and Zuni Tribe — are calling on Interior to restore the monument to its original size.

They have joined with other supporters who appreciate the monument as a popular recreational area. It was host last year to more than 400,000 visitors lured by rivers, multi-hued canyons, cliffs and rock formations to climb, raft, hike, photograph and camp.

Trump’s reduction of the national monument opens the door to development, and without protection the land is subject to looting, desecration and vandalism.

RESTORE HOMELANDS

The Interior Department determines whether lands can be added to reservations or placed into trust and protected by the federal government on behalf of a tribe. It can also decide whether the federal government will recognize a tribe’s legitimacy. 

The issue of land into trust is currently of great import to the Mashpee Wampanoag in Massachusetts.

In this May 29, 2014, file photo, people stand in the lobby of the newly constructed Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's Community Government Center in Mashpee, Mass., on Cape Cod. The tribe says an unfavorable decision from the U.S. Interior Department in 2018 on its tribal reservation status would effectively shut down some of it's government operations. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)

“Interior had previously taken land into trust for them,” Echohawk said. “And then this administration, this Interior Department is taking that land out of trust. They changed the legal opinion relating to it. So now all that's in court. And of course, the legal question is, what are the standards for taking land into trust for a tribe?”

He said sovereignty and putting land in trust are long-standing and fundamental tenets of federal-Indian law, yet “this administration changed their legal opinion, and now it makes it more difficult for some tribes to do that,” Echohawk said.

That rule change is recent, but it adds to the difficulties of getting through a time-consuming process — and past an agency that sometimes appears to be working against tribes' interests.

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For instance, a 1983 court ruling restored the Buena Vista Rancheria, or reservation, and federal recognition to the Buena Vista Me-Wuk Indians explicitly to spare them from “having to navigate the [Bureau of Indian Affairs’] uncertain and often protracted discretionary fee-to-trust process.” 

Nonetheless, the bureau directed the tribe to undergo that exact process. The agency then denied the tribe’s application and rights to appeal.

Last month, a California federal judge issued a court order affirming the 1983 judgment restoring land set aside by the federal government in the early 1900s for California tribes.

“During the Obama administration previously, they took quite a bit of land into trust during their time there, but this administration hasn't done near as much,” Echohawk said. “So that's one of the things that the tribes are urging … pushing for more land to be taken into trust, for the applications to be processed faster and quicker.”

PROMISES FOR THE FUTURE

Dr. David Wilkins, Lumbee, is a professor at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies, and an author and expert on Native politics and governance.

He said the Interior Department historically often worked to the detriment of Indigenous peoples, treating “Native lands and peoples as property, not as sovereign nations entitled to respect and fair treatment.”

He said Haaland’s nomination suggests the president-elect is serious about giving Indigenous people a policy presence in his administration “on a level never seen before.”

Appointing Native Americans to high-level government positions was part of the incoming administration's plan for tribal nations released before the election. The plan listed several other positions that will or can be filled by Native Americans.

Biden said his administration will also strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship, restore tribal lands and address chronic budget shortfalls.

“A Biden administration will work with tribes to explore ways to expand self-governance opportunities,” stated the Biden-Kamala Harris plan. “Tribal homelands are at the heart of tribal sovereignty and self-governance. As president, Biden will restore lands and protect the natural and cultural resources within them, while honoring the role of tribal governments in protecting those resources.”

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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