Edward Rexford Sr.
Native Village of Kaktovik President
John Hopson Jr.
City of Wainwright Acting Mayor
Sayers Tuzroyluk Sr.
Voice of the Arctic Inupiat President
Let us be clear. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland deserves our sincere and heartfelt congratulations. The significance of being the first Native American named to a cabinet-level position is remarkable, long overdue and worth celebrating. We share in our congressional delegation’s recognition of the role Native Americans serve as wise stewards of the land.
So why does her appointment give us pause? In so many ways, Alaska is different from the rest of the nation. This is not a bad thing or an accident. Indeed, policymakers learned from mistakes made in the Lower 48 about how to manage Indian Country.
We are proud to have broken the mold when it comes to the land and water rights of our Native Alaska people. We did it right. That also means that we do not fit neatly into any category. Our issues require adherence to unique laws and practices that do not apply to the rest of the country.
Two landmark laws in particular guide us in Alaska. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act were watershed pieces of legislation that provided Alaska Native people with more rights and control over Native lands than tribes in the Lower 48. Both laws were meant to empower Native communities to survive and thrive, while providing for responsible use of the land to support our people.
Unfortunately, many of the promises made to Alaska Native people in both ANCSA and ANILCA have been willfully broken – one of the tragic similarities Alaska Natives share with Indian Country.
We must constantly defend the rights clearly provided to us in law from people who do not understand, or who do not care to understand, the novel and different approach Alaska decided to take in managing Native land.
Secretary Haaland will play a prominent role in when and how these laws are enforced.
We have historical reason to be wary of federal-level political appointees obeying these laws. Too many examples of the laws being disregarded exist to list here, but suffice it to say we have lived through many instances of perhaps well-meaning but misguided federal officials trying to “save us from ourselves” by inflicting their version of what is good for us via regulations, executive orders and policy.
To say President Biden got off to a bad start in this area is an understatement. In his first few days of office, he promised to consult with Native Americans and Native Alaskans on issues affecting them, and then issued sweeping policy changes without any consultation at all.
We are the Indigenous people who live in the areas impacted by his decisions, and these early actions leave us to question how President Biden’s choice for Secretary of the Interior will navigate under challenging circumstances.
Alaska is also special in that the Secretary of the Interior plays an outsized role here. With far more federal land than any other state, we are quite literally at the mercy of the federal government. The anti-development policies heralded by the Biden administration in the name of combating climate change will devastate Alaska Native people, our economy and communities.
This is not fearmongering or hypothetical. If these polices are taken to the extreme, we will become poorer, sicker and less independent. Our region is dependent on natural resource development and the economy it provides to us – improving our quality of life and increasing our longevity. We are supportive of oil development.
Extensive consultation provides culturally appropriate protections of our lands, waters and animals. How does this make us different from energy producing tribes of the Lower 48?
It is critical that Secretary Haaland be transparent and clarify her approach to this dilemma. Will she take the time to educate herself about Alaska Native people and the unique laws that govern us?
Given the long, sad record of federal overreach in dealing with our people, we struggle to be optimistic. Alaska Native people from across the state should be concerned about Haaland’s record of open hostility toward natural resource development and the industries that have contributed to lifting so many of us in Alaska out of poverty into a life of self-determination.
Despite our concerns, we pledge to work with the secretary in a productive, cooperative manner. Make no mistake, however, we will hold her accountable for her actions, and if her decisions adversely impact our people, we will speak up loudly and publicly.
Secretary Haaland, we call on you to not treat us as a colony to be managed. Listen to us when we say we know what works best for our people and our land. We are concerned about your positions on numerous issues that directly impact us, but we are open to working with you.
Prove our fears wrong.
Edward Rexford Sr. is president of the Native Village of Kaktovik; John Hopson Jr. is acting mayor of the City of Wainwright; and Sayers Tuzroyluk Sr. is president of Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat. All are Alaska Native leaders and whaling captains. They are lifelong residents of the North Slope and live an active subsistence lifestyle.