By Larry Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Few Americans may fully appreciate what a history-making moment this is for Native Americans and conservationists. President-Elect Joe Biden has nominated Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) as Secretary of the Interior Department. If confirmed, she will become the first Native American to hold a cabinet position.
Haaland will not ride in on a horse dressed as a cowboy as Zinke did, nor will she have Bernhardt’s fossil fuel agenda. Haaland is respected for her legislative efforts to combat violence against Alaskan Indigenous communities and her involvement with the Standing Rock protesters to preserve tribal sovereignty and water threatened by a dangerous tar-sands oil pipeline. As a citizen of Laguna Pueblo and chairperson of the Pueblo economic development corporation, Representative Haaland brings native American experiences, knowledge, and values to an agency that needs to model the importance of conservation and sustainability.
The Department of the Interior oversees more than 482 million acres of land, including the Bureau of Land Management lands and minerals, national parks, and wildlife refuges. As Secretary of the Interior, Haaland will also have administrative responsibility for coordinating federal policy in various U.S. territories. Interior is also home to the Fish and Wildlife Service that protects endangered species, migratory waterfowl, and other fish and wildlife conservation efforts.
For the first time in history, a Native American Interior Secretary will have trust responsibilities for tribes and Native Alaskans through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). BIA manages relationships with 574 federally recognized tribes and Alaskan Native communities. The BIA has not overcome its notorious history dating back to the War Department years. Having a native American Secretary of Interior was unimaginable in America’s shameful past.
The following are just a few of the many profound cases of abuse of native Americans by the U.S. government and the deep-seated resentment of the Interior Department that Haaland will need to overcome.
- In 1830, David Crockett was the only member of Congress to vehemently oppose the forced displacement of native Americans under President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act that forcibly removed 46,000 Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw from their historic homelands to the Oklahoma Territory. Known as the Trail of Tears, many suffered and died on their forced walk to the newly created Indian Territory. (Crockett lost his bid for re-election over his courageous stand against Jackson’s shameful human rights violations.)
- The ink was barely dry on 368 treaties when treaty lands were stolen for gold, grazing, water, and other resource developments. When Lakota lands were seized for gold miners, nearly three hundred Lakota Indians resisted. Men, women, and children were slaughtered by the U. S. Army at the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890.
- Our government ignored evidence that Native Americans had successfully mastered sustainability with conservation practices that enabled them to live in harmony with nature for thousands of years. Instead of learning from the tribes, the Interior Department instituted a forced assimilation strategy during the Indian Termination Era to crush indigenous traditions, cultures, languages, and spiritual beliefs.
- In an appalling genocidal move starting in 1879, tens of thousands of Native American children were taken from their parents and placed in twenty-six BIA boarding schools modeled after the Carlisle Indian Industrial School designed by its founder to “Kill the Indian: Save the Man” BIA forced young children to leave their families, giving up everything while inculcating Euro-American culture, language, and the Christian religion. The goal was to purge children of their native tongue, dress, cultural traditions, and even anglicizing their names. The trauma done to Indian children during this genocidal period caused untold psychological damage to generations, continuing to have repercussions on reservations to this day.
- The treatment of Native Americans is a shameful chapter in our history includes the stripping of ownership of tribal reservation lands established by treaties through the Dawes Act of 1887 authorizing the BIA to break up lands held in common by the members of a tribe into small allotments parceled out to individuals who often sold them to non-tribal people thereby fragmenting reservations.
- Native abuse continues with Trump’s destructive oil development proposal for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that threatens to disrupt the core calving area of the Arctic Caribou herd vital for the Gwich’in people. Known as the “caribou people,” the Gwich’ins have properly stewarded the caribou herd for thousands of years.
A founder of the Boone and Crockett Club, George Bird Grinnell wrote in a 1916 Forest and Stream article titled “What We May Learn from the Indian,” which was drawn from experience with Lakota tribes, that “game protection was for economic reasons.” Grinnell knew bison once numbered around 36 million while serving as the staple for the “bison people” for thousands of years. When bison were near-extinction from wanton waste by cowboys with only 541 remaining, he explained, “(I)t was for the greatest good of the greatest number of (Lakota) people that this game should not be wasted.” Specific Lakota practices forbid individual buffalo hunting to avoid scaring the herds, allocating family hunting territories, keeping careful count of the game so that “only a certain proportion was taken,” and letting zones lie fallow for a year after a year of hunting. Grinnell concluded that these conservation measures were “methods of economy that American sportsmen may well take to heart.”
While solid conservation practices date back to Native American culture, Haaland believes that conservation and sustainability must evolve in the face of the climate crisis. As Secretary of Interior, Haaland can demonstrate 21st-century conservation.
Haaland understands the “methods of economy” that Grinnell recorded. Conservation must be about harvesting in a sustainable way while assuring the well-being of the assemblage of interlocking living and finite land and water resources. Nature must be carefully managed in the face of the climate crisis. Rep. Haaland called for a national goal of conserving thirty percent of U.S. Lands and Oceans by 2030. “Our communities deserve fresh air to breathe, clean water to drink, and a livable planet, but right now inaction on climate change is putting everything at risk, particularly in communities of color. Globally, the loss of nature – accelerated by climate change – is putting up to one million species on the path to extinction. Conserving lands and waters is an essential element to protect humans and wildlife and stabilizing our climate, so I’m following the direction from leading scientists and introducing this resolution to set a national goal of conserving 30 percent of America’s land and oceans by 2030 to tackle this urgent crisis.”
All life revolves around complex and fragile relationships. Decisionmakers rarely appreciate or even understand the complexities of biodiversity interplays with each seemly insignificant component’s interdependence. Our worst human tendencies discount what we possess until we have lost it all. In this late hour, our society must reject amoral economic notions that exploit the public estate, generously reward the few while undermining our children’s future.
In Native American tradition, Haaland will seek to manage the public estate for the 3rd and 4th generation. She will also promote the self-governance of tribes by administering the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, allowing tribes to administer their programs and financial services.
Haaland may try to block the development of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and find some creative remedies for other historic abuses. She must now defend her record and vision while running the confirmation gantlet. Unless Democrats take Georgia to control the Senate, Haaland will face Chairman Borrasso from Wyoming and a fossil-fuel-controlled Republican Senate. With our support, Haaland has an opportunity to make a meaningful difference for our world, Native Americans, and future generations.