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Why Deb Haaland’s confirmation as interior secretary is so important to Indigenous communities

Nazune Menka, JD, Tribal Cultural Resources Policy Fellow at Berkeley Law | March 15, 2021
116th Official Congressional Photo of Rep. Deb Haaland

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) 116th Congress Official Photo

Secretary Deb Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna) is the first Indigenous woman confirmed as Secretary of a federal agency. She will the lead of the Department of the Interior (DOI). This historic day calls for a recognition of the resiliency, survivance, and fortitude Indigenous communities have led with since 1492.

Secretary Haaland’s swearing in is important to our communities, not only as a symbol of our strength, but because having an Indigenous woman lead the agency tasked with both overseeing more than 480 million acres of public land, and upholding the federal trust responsibility to Tribes provides a unique opportunity.

Never before have we had a Secretary of the DOI who has a lived understanding of what Tribal sovereignty is and why it is important, and who truly understands that a government-to-government relationship requires collaboration (and not just consultation). This is key because Secretary Haaland will also oversee the leadership of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

The BIA, which was really the beginning of the DOI as the Office of Indian Affairs, was created by the Secretary of War in 1824. It is not coincidental that the federal government situated relations with Indigenous peoples in the War Department. The doctrine of discovery as brought to life by the U.S. Supreme Court in three cases called the Marshall trilogy illustrates the racist and colonial belief systems immigrants brought to this land. Namely that European colonizers had universal authority over non-Christian peoples outside Europe, a theoretical idea tracing back to the Roman Catholic Church’s crusades.[1]

The doctrine of discovery served as the rationale to dispossess Indigenous Peoples of land, where the court held that aboriginal title is only a title of use and occupancy, not a fee simple right to land ownership. This doctrine, which has been adopted in case law around the world, is part of a larger idea that Tribal sovereignty can be given and taken away by Congress, by interpretation of the Courts, and is only inherent in so much as it is not diminished by the same. The ability to own, and not just occupy land, is key to self determination, economic self sufficiency, and sovereignty.

The opportunity before Secretary Haaland, is also before all of us. It is an opportunity to advocate for reshaping the approach to working with Indigenous Peoples. One way that could occur is by returning the right to determine Indigeneity from the Office of Federal Acknowledgment to Indigenous Peoples themselves. Indeed, one concept of inherent sovereignty that case law has said remains with Tribes, is the right to govern Tribal internal matters, of which membership is clearly one. Land ownership is intricately linked to federal recognition, and land ownership is linked to self-determination and sovereignty.

Bringing this inherent sovereignty into policy by allowing Tribes to forego the lengthy and hugely problematic federal acknowledgment process could be the first step to righting the federal governments institutionalized attempts of cultural and corporal genocide. It could also be a step toward realizing Free, Prior, and Informed Consent as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which the U.S. has not formally adopted).

No matter how Secretary Haaland moves forward in her new position, after 529 years of settler colonialism, we should all celebrate that she is leading us into a future that is Indigenous.

Enaa Baasee‘ (Many Thanks) for taking a moment to read, lead, and share.

I am a Koyukon Athabascan and Lumbee attorney excited to be serving as the Tribal Cultural Resources Policy Fellow at Berkeley Law through June 2022. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska I’ve also lived and worked in North Carolina, Arizona, Michigan, Hawaii, and New Mexico. I view myself as an advocate for Indigenous communities, a compassionate negotiator, and a seeker of truth. I also serve as a member of the Truth and Justice Project at UC Berkeley. You can reach me at nazune@berkeley.edu or on Twitter @NazuneJD.

[1] See Robert A. Williams, The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest (1990).