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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

What a year, sheesh.

Back in February on a 31-degree day on the Meskwaki Indian Settlement, Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblos, spoke to about three dozen people at the tribe’s museum.

The New Mexico Democrat had just started her second year as a member of Congress and was visiting Meskwaki to champion her friend and then-presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a push to win the Iowa Caucus. The election year had officially begun.

To say a lot has changed since would be so 2020.

(Related: Indian Country Today’s top 20 stories of 2020)

The past year will be remembered for many things: a deadly pandemic, a never-ending election season and a giant movement for racial justice. It will also be remembered for monumental moments in Indian Country that called for celebration, including Haaland’s nomination as Interior secretary under President-elect Joe Biden.

What. A. Year.

Here are some of the many 2020 wins for Indigenous people and Indian Country:

‘I’ll be fierce for all us’

The Biden administration's nominee for Secretary of Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., speaks at The Queen Theater in Wilmington Del., Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Biden, in a historic move, chose Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Interior Department, which has wide-ranging authority and employs 70,000 people. If confirmed by the Senate, Haaland would be the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary. Biden made the announcement in mid-December.

"Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce,” Haaland said. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land. I am honored and ready to serve."

Supreme Court ruling ‘reaffirmed’ sovereignty

Oklahoma. Supreme Court. McGirt v. Oklahoma. Carpenter v. Murphy. Sharp v. Murphy.

In a decision hailed as a win for tribal sovereignty, the Supreme Court affirmed in July that a large portion of eastern Oklahoma remains a reservation.

In the 5-4 ruling, the nation’s highest court said Congress never explicitly “disestablished” the 1866 boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Jonodev Chaudhuri, Muscogee and ambassador of the tribal nation, said the decision was a huge win for Indian Country and a profoundly impactful day for the tribe.

“Many folks are in tears,” Chaudhuri said. “Despite a history of many broken promises, as is true with many tribal nations, the citizens feel uplifted that for once the United States is being held to its promises.”

House candidates make history

Kaialiʻi “Kai” Kahele, a Democrat and Hawaii state senator, is a candidate for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. (Photo courtesy of Kai Kahele campaign website)

Six Indigenous candidates for Congress won their races on Nov. 3, meaning the next U.S. House will have a record number of voting Native members.

Native Hawaiian Kai Kahele and Yvette Herrell, Cherokee, were elected in Hawaii and New Mexico, respectively. Haaland, Reps. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, Tom Cole, Chickasaw, and Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, also won their reelection bids. Davids represents Kansas, while Cole and Mullin hail from Oklahoma.

If Haaland is confirmed by the Senate as Interior secretary, that will leave five Indigenous U.S. House members — still a record.

Native candidates also scored notable wins in November at the state and local level.

Native Vote shows its power

Lummi Nation tribal member Karen Scott drops her completed ballot into a ballot drop box Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, on the Lummi Reservation, near Bellingham, Wash. Washington Native Vote Day is Tuesday, Oct. 20, where tribes throughout the state connect, mainly remotely this year because of the coronavirus, with each other to encourage tribal members to register to vote and to cast their ballots. The historic photo used on the voting poster is referred to as "Lummi Woman," shot by Edward Curtis in 1899. It wasn't until 1962 that every state in the nation secured the right to vote for Native people. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Native Americans have always known they are “something else.”

And they showed up to vote in November, especially in Wisconsin and Arizona, two key states won by President-elect Joe Biden.

“Native people have always carried the water for democracy in this country,” said Philomena Kebec, citizen of the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe in Wisconsin.

A shift away from Native mascot imagery

Rebrand Washington Football members at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. The group stands behind the former location of the George Preston Marshall statue, founder of the Washington NFL team. The group was out July 13, handing out free T-shirts and jersey patches to those who want to rebrand. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)

The Washington NFL franchise announced in July that it was retiring its team name and logo, a fight Native activists have been leading for decades.

The battle to change Native-themed mascots began in the 1970s and has since been largely led by Native women, including Suzan Harjo, Hodulgee Muscogee and Cheyenne. It was carried into 2020 with the help of Amanda Blackhorse, Diné, Crystal Echo Hawk, Pawnee, and many others.

Pressure in 2020 began mounting as George Floyd’s death spurred the crashing of racist symbols of all kinds across the country, including the Washington NFL franchise.

Washington’s action was soon followed by a Canadian football team’s decision to discontinue its Native-themed mascot. In December, the MLB Cleveland baseball team announced it was changing its name after 105 years.

Pebble Mine permit in Alaska denied

No to Pebble Mine, United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Alaska

In November, the Trump administration denied a permit for the controversial gold and copper mine near the headwaters of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery in Alaska.

The move was celebrated by tribal and environmental organizations.

A coalition of area tribes, in a statement, said: “The decision reflects the sound science and overwhelming public opposition to this toxic project.”

Tribes keep up pipeline fight

Tribes opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline had an eventful year.

In July, a federal judge ordered the pipeline to shut down and remove all oil while a more extensive environmental review is conducted. An appeals court overturned the shutdown but upheld the required review and a decision to reject some key permits for the project. The Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes suing over the pipeline have said the ruling was not a setback, and they’re committed to continuing their fight.

Also this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to the disputed Keystone XL pipeline by keeping in place a lower court ruling that blocked an important permit for the project.

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Leech Lake homelands restored

Leech Lake band of Ojibwe logo. (Photo courtesy of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe website)

Nearly 12,000 acres taken from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in the 1940s and 1950s will be returned.

Legislation that called for the Chippewa National Forest to transfer 11,760 acres to the Interior Department to be held in trust for the northern Minnesota tribe is law.

The House unanimously passed the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation Restoration Act in early December, while the Senate approved the bill in 2019. The measure was presented to President Donald Trump, who signed it into law this week.

Natives march in support of Black Lives Matter


The May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was felt across the world, and Indian Country came out in support of racial justice.

In the wake of Floyd’s death, Natives in Minneapolis marched in large protests with the message of “Black Lives Matter.” A group of jingle dress dancers held a healing ceremony at the Minneapolis intersection where Floyd was killed.

Native communities in Alaska, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona, to name a few, participated in the Black Lives Matter movement in solidarity.

In Minneapolis, the American Indian Movement expressed outrage over Floyd’s death and patrolled Native businesses during the civil unrest.

Statues of Columbus fall

Minnesota State Troopers surrounded the statue of Christopher Columbus after it was toppled in front of the Minnesota State Capitol, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. The statue was later towed away. (Leila Navidi/Star Tribune via AP)

Controversial statues of Christopher Columbus and confederate leaders were dismantled across the U.S. as the country reevaluated its relationship to historical figures who have unacknowledged brutal pasts with people of color.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has provided the right spark at the right moment to ignite a fire to finally bring down these symbols of Native oppression,” said Guy Jones, Standing Rock Sioux.

Indian Country Today offered 10 names of people whose statues should replace Columbus.

TikToker Nathan Apodaca reminds us to smile

Nathan Apodaca is the Northern Arapaho TikToker who went viral skateboarding to Fleetwood Mac's hit "Dreams." (Photo courtesy of Nathan Apodaca)

Native people across social media said the year started to take a turn when Northern Arapaho TikToker Nathan Apodaca showed up on their phones.

He became a beacon of hope and positive vibes following his viral video skateboarding to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” 

Since uploading the clip at the end of September, he has received more than 8 million likes on TikTok and counting. 

“I just want to say to the Indigenous people out there, stay strong. I know times are tough right now, especially on the rez,” Apodaca said.

Iroquois Nationals to compete in World Games

The Iroquois Nationals during the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)

It took some help, but the Iroquois Nationals will compete in an international tournament that originally failed to recognize the lacrosse team as representing a sovereign nation.

Only eight teams were invited to the 2021 World Games, and the Nationals were left off the list even though the team is known as an international powerhouse. Ireland Lacrosse did the Nationals a solid and bowed out in September.

The games eventually were pushed to 2022 due to the pandemic, but expect the Nationals to compete in the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama.

Lakota tribe keeps checkpoints, sues feds


Since spring, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe implemented checkpoints on highways that run through the reservation in South Dakota in an effort to keep away the coronavirus. The move was criticized by the state’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem, who also threatened legal action against the tribe.

Eventually, the tribe filed a lawsuit against federal officials in relation to the checkpoints and has kept the checkpoints up.

Mashpee Wampanoag ruling lauded

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)

Support poured in for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe following a ruling in its favor in a lawsuit against the Interior Department.

In June, U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman blocked the federal government from rescinding the Massachusetts tribe’s reservation status, ordering the Interior Department to reexamine a decision that took the tribe’s more than 300 acres out of trust.

Transgender inmate receives surgery


For the first time in U.S. history, a transgender inmate this year was provided court-ordered gender confirmation surgery.

Adree Edmo, a Shoshone-Bannock citizen and transgender woman, was treated with the surgery in July. She was then transferred to a women’s correctional facility in Pocatello, Idaho. Edmo previously was housed in prisons for men.

Native representation hits network mainstream

Taika Waititi posing in the press room at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on Feb. 9, 2020. He is shown holding the Emmy he won for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film Jojo Rabbit.

At least three Native TV shows are in production this year: Rutherford Falls, Reservation Dogs and Spirit Rangers. All three were created by Indigenous people.

Rutherford Falls is a Peacock Original, Reservation Dogs is heading to FX, and Spirit Rangers has a home on Netflix.

For more Native projects in the works, click here.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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