Waycobah Band of Mi’kmaq
With the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States, those of us in Indian Country were hopeful for a full reset of our relationship with the federal government. Biden came to office promising to restore tribal lands, address climate change, improve healthcare, strengthen our nation-to-nation relationship, and expand economic opportunity.
On its campaign website, the Biden/Harris campaign wrote: “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.”
Certainly, we have heard these kinds of promises before from past administrations. But early actions by the White House gave us some indication that this time they might actually be kept.
The president made some very promising steps initially. He took the historic step of nominating Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, to be Secretary of the Interior. And, on day one, the president asked the Interior Department to begin a review of the status of the National Monuments in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah – both of which had come under attack by the Trump administration.
Biden has since undone the immoral moves of the previous administration and restored lands to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. He has also announced an extension of the moratorium on oil and gas development at the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
We are looking to the Biden administration to protect our lands, our environment, our economy and our sovereignty, but it has done far too little and is moving way too slowly despite some auspicious early steps. Haaland produced a report quickly on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, but then the report languished for months gathering bureaucratic dust in the White House. It was not until Native leaders publicly pressured the administration that it took any concrete action to restore the monuments. We expected more and continue to expect more.
In truth, the White House is too narrowly and cautiously focused on merely undoing Trump’s actions and enacting short-term fixes. This is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. The actions with respect to Chaco Canyon, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase are positive, but undoing Trump-era actions is not enough. We need this administration to be bold. We need this administration to stand up for Indian Country and we need them to do it now without being constantly prodded.
There are many areas where the Biden administration could move forward boldly. To give one example, there is a place where Native people, conservationists and local communities have been working for years to protect — a place that is sacred and unlike any other space. The proposed Ave Kwa Ame National Monument in southern Nevada needs administration support immediately.
The burden and the opportunity here lie almost exclusively with the White House and the president’s executive authority, rather than the Congress. Even with Democrats having control of the White House, Senate, and the House of Representatives, we have seen the difficulties they have getting big things done. We now know there is no real chance that the Senate will reform the filibuster, meaning there is no real chance of passing any legislation that will protect more public lands of significance to Indian Country. Waiting for Congress in this instance means we will be waiting forever. It is up to the Biden administration to ensure that the promises made during the campaign are promises that are kept.
The timing here is critical and the window of opportunity for the proposed Ave Kwa Ame National Monument and so many other places may be short-lived. No one knows what the elections over the next four years will hold. We could very well find ourselves with a hostile administration in less than four short years from now. In addition, the longer we wait to implement protections for Native lands, the easier it is for a future administration to undo those improvements. In other words, we need the Biden administration to not only act boldly, but also to act expeditiously.
On Dec. 4h of his first term, Donald Trump had reduced Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent. We must challenge this administration to build something as quickly as the last administration tore something down. The sacred space at the proposed Ave Kwa Ame National Monument has been eyed by developers for years and needs permanent protection now. We cannot wait until the 11th hour — in part because we have other areas to preserve as well.
This is the time for the Biden administration to be forward-thinking about preserving sacred Native lands, not just reactionary. This is an opportunity for Biden to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to keeping their promises to Native peoples and to our children — to protect our land, our heritage and our future.
The clock is ticking.
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