Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs
Today marks the 198th anniversary of the establishment of what is now known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA, along with the Bureau of Indian Education and Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, works to fulfill the United States’ trust responsibilities to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and individuals.
For the past year, I have been honored to support the missions of these three bureaus and Indian Affairs’ staff across the nation who work every day to support Indian Country. It’s been an intense and challenging year. It’s also been fun and rewarding. Coming into this job, I expected to rely heavily on my experience as a tribal judge, a tribal leader and from my previous time at the Department of the Interior. Mostly, though, I’ve relied on my experience growing up and living in my tribal community and understanding many of the challenges tribes face every day.
I keep it in the front of my mind that the work we do at the Interior Department affects the daily lives of the people in our communities. We have built a team that shares that understanding.
I'm proud of the work we’ve done in this short amount of time, both in delivering results and in laying the foundation for the work we will do together in the coming years. I've seen real change on the ground in my own tribal community and in many others on my visits over the past year.
When the Biden-Harris administration hosted the Tribal Nations Summit in November, it restored an important opportunity for meaningful dialogue with tribal leaders on key issues, policy initiatives and goals for Indian Country.
The steps the administration has taken over the past year will lay the foundation for the future – to ensure every single Native person has the right to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives together as tribal people in their tribal homeland.
This guiding principle is a direct response to the legacy of colonization – which sought to take these things from Native people. Our work is rooted in this principle. Together, we can begin the process of healing the scars left in our communities from colonization and termination.
We know these scars were formed over centuries. And we know we can’t erase them in four or eight years. This is the work of generations, but it’s also our work.
We will work to ensure every tribe has a homeland where people can live together and carry forward their way of life. This will include continuing our efforts to consolidate tribal lands, which is reflected in the President’s last budget. It will include improving the land-into-trust process. We’ve taken steps to do that in the past year, more than doubling the number of land acquisitions in trust status.
Our work will also include supporting tribally led conservation of lands to support our climate response, the exercise of treaty and subsistence rights and the protection of religious rights. The Tribal Homelands Initiative is a collaborative effort between the Interior and Agriculture Departments to improve federal stewardship of public lands, waters and wildlife by strengthening the role of tribal communities in federal land management.
We will protect and heal families in our tribal communities. This will include telling the truth about the legacy of boarding schools through the Secretary’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. It will include defending the Indian Child Welfare Act. It will also include ramping up our efforts to keep people safe in tribal communities.
We are focusing on public safety, beginning with the launch of the Missing and Murdered Unit within the BIA’s Office of Justice Services. You can find more information about this effort at bia.gov/mmu, a new website dedicated to solving missing and murdered cases in Indian Country.
We're in unprecedented times and have a unique opportunity for lasting and meaningful improvements for Native communities. We're working to ensure that Indigenous ways of knowing, ways of praying and ways of speaking are protected and revitalized. This includes our efforts to protect sacred places and incorporate traditional knowledge into the science that informs our decision-making. It also includes our investments in language revitalization and collaboration with tribes and community organizations.
With our partners across the Biden-Harris administration, and under the leadership of Secretary Deb Haaland, I'm truly excited about what we can achieve.
The President’s agenda for the country focuses on healing and building back better. That agenda guides what we’re doing in Indian Affairs and across the administration to make life better for people throughout our tribal communities as we look to enter a new era of revitalization.
This opinion-editorial essay does not reflect the views of Indian Country Today; voices in our opinion section represent a variety of reader points of view. If you would like to contribute an essay to Indian Country Today, email email@example.com.
More information about our guidelines: Submission guidelines.