Patrice H. Kunesh JD MPA

In 2020, in the midst of a dark and despairing year, Native voters changed the trajectory of their collective fates. Not only did Native voters make a difference in the election the 46th President, they then mobilized to promote the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior, the federal agency responsible for implementing a maze of federal laws and policies related to American Indians and Alaska Natives and managing over 60 million acres of reservation lands and resources.

On Dec.17th, the inconceivable became real when President-elect Joe Biden announced Rep. Haaland as his nominee for Secretary of the Interior Department, marking the first time a Native American will serve in this powerful position. Indian Country celebrated, exulting in the possibilities of a great new era of federal Indian policy under the Biden-Harris Administration, one based on genuine respect for the United States’ treaty and trust obligations.

December 17th also marked another momentous day in history. On that day in 1890, Lakota spiritual leader Sitting Bull was killed at his home on the Standing Rock Reservation by agents of the Interior Department for practicing his religion. This old man was considered a dangerous threat to the federal agents’ mission of opening the west to railroads and white settlement – even a whisper of a traditional prayer or ceremony disturbed the government’s plans to confiscate tribal lands and resources and force Native people onto reservations.

My grandfather grew up not too far from Sitting Bull’s home. Reservation life in the early 1900s was brutal, pockmarked by dreadful poverty and virulent despair. Considered too heathen, too uncivilized, and too poor, Native people were not considered U.S. citizens until1924 with the Indian Citizenship Act. Even then, Native people could not vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned racial discrimination in voting practices. Remarkably, despite obstacles at every turn, on election night last month, Native voters elected Native leaders in record numbers to all levels of government and, consequentially, the nomination of Deb Haaland as Secretary of Interior.

Secretary Haaland will inherit Indian Country’s painful historical legacy and its sticky residue of racism and stubborn economic disparities. But within her grasp are considerable tools to ensure its extraordinary future.

Before the pandemic, Indian Country’s economy was on the rise – tribal nations collectively were the 13th largest employer in the United States, powered by steady growth of tribal government gaming revenue. In the past three decades, overall per capita income of Native people on reservations had increased 48%, from tragically low poverty rates.

Over time, tribal governments invested those resources into jobs for tribal citizens, which in turn enhanced overall individual and community well-being. Indeed, growing body of evidence proves the long-term benefits of investing in Native communities and tribal institutions, such as family stability, a swell in high school diplomas and college degrees, and more meaningful civic engagement.

So what will it take to make sure Indian Country doesn’t backslide? On the national level, Secretary Haaland would serve Indian Country well by focusing on three “big picture” challenges: effectively advance tribal self-governance; significantly invest in education; and substantively support business and economic diversification.

Here’s what I propose.

First, Secretary Haaland needs to ensure that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has the administrative capacity to deliver its full portfolio of programs and services, as required by law and treaty.

This includes optimizing tribal governments’ capacity to be self-governing, the only federal policy that actually is working in Indian Country. Under a robust policy of self-governance employing powerful tools such as the HEARTH Act, tribes can regain control over their lands and resources and direct their economies and investments.

The stakes are high because, in order for tribes to succeed, the BIA must excel as well. Yet currently the BIA is woefully under-resourced and its processes weighty and unwieldy (only three tribal leasing regulations were approved in FY19 and dozens have to await BIA approval).

For example, housing is critical to creating good systems of health, education, and community stability, but efforts to build new homes are constantly thwarted when Native borrowers cannot make use of major mortgage programs (USDA Rural Development 502 program, HUD’s 184 loan guarantee, and the Veterans Affairs Native American Program) because the BIA cannot issue a Title Status Report in a timely manner.

Normalizing the BIA’s lending processes also would attract much-needed capital in Indian Country. One well-established and successful vehicle to deliver capital to Native communities, both public and private, is the community development financial institution (CDFI) fund. This works because Native CDFIs are closest to the community and have an intimate understanding of those communities’ needs and capacity. They are agile, innovative, responsive, and most of all, committed to ensuring the success of their borrowers. Here, Secretary Haaland should lend her considerable voice to expand the pool of funds available for Native CDFIs and recognize Native CDFIs as essential partners in delivering a broad array of federal programs to Indian Country.

Second, Secretary Haaland should foster an environment for more inclusive prosperity.

Economic shocks and recessions make people much worse off. But in Indian Country, tribes have always had far fewer resources.

The work here involves deep investments in enhanced educational opportunities from birth to adulthood, with an emphasis on quality of early childhood development and workforce training. Removing the shameful stain of appalling education policies will take a lot of scrubbing, but the rewards are great. Investing in children and workers is a transformational structural change and creates pathways to radically more equal opportunities for Native peoples.

For tribes, a skilled and trained workforce is required to compete economically. For individuals, education is the gateway to financial stability and economic mobility. For the community, the benefits of early learning, combined with language and culture, are exponential, with the potential of stretching beyond seven generations.

Third, as a community leader, Secretary Haaland knows that business enterprise and social welfare are two sides of the larger issue of sustainable economic development.

In Indian Country, the pandemic revealed a huge fault line in reservation economies. For the most part, reservation jobs are highly concentrated in just two sectors – public administration and gaming-related businesses. This over-dependence on a narrow range of employers has exposed high levels of vulnerability to economic and social shocks. With the biggest benefits from jobs and paychecks, tribes need to expand the type of reservation business interests while creating a positive climate for private entrepreneurship and business development.

Secretary Haaland should highlight this vulnerability and commit to creating a positive climate for private entrepreneurship and business development.

In addition to pursuing economic security for tribes, Secretary Haaland should ensure the equality of opportunity for Native people across the country and throughout the federal government.

For decades now, tribes have boldly pursued self-governance despite a history of severe underfunding of basic trust services. Post-pandemic, Secretary Haaland should insist that all agencies of the federal government recognize the imperative of the trust responsibility and work together to ensure effective and reliable delivery of public services to Indian Country.

The sum total of all of this is a bold new era of federal Indian policy. As Secretary Haaland takes the helm of the Interior Department, she should declare so. The Haaland era, one of working nations working for shared prosperity, heralds tremendous opportunities for Native self-governance and for transforming the narrative of yesterday into the vision of tomorrow.

Of Standing Rock Lakota descent, Patrice is a nationally recognized thought leader and advocate, well known for influencing, inspiring, and equipping cross-sector leaders to create inclusive economic systems and thriving societies, particularly with Native communities. Kunesh is the founder and director of Peȟíŋ Haha Consulting, a social enterprise committed to building more engaged and powerful Native communities by expanding assets, fostering social and human capital, strengthening capacity, and pursuing economic equity through research and advocacy.