Deb Haaland’s Tough Road Ahead at the Interior Department

Haaland will have to overcome the Interior’s legacy of colonialism and fossil fuel plunder — as well as her boss’s moderate centrism.


Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., makes her way to a group photo with Democratic women members of the House on the East Front of the Capitol on Jan. 4, 2019.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Deb Haaland faces a difficult road ahead at the Department of the Interior, if her nomination by President-elect Joe Biden is confirmed. A tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo and a Democratic member of Congress from New Mexico, Haaland will be stepping into a minefield: a mixture of various aims imposed by her party’s centrist leadership, tribal interests, progressive causes, and the energy industry. For an Indigenous woman from New Mexico, it will be all the more fraught.

Take something as simple as Smokey Bear, the friendly cartoon character known for instructing children on how to prevent forest fires. “Smokey Bear is a white racist pig,” New Mexico Chicano activist Jerry Fuentes once said. For Fuentes, the cartoon represented Big Brother of the Forest Service, which had criminalized small-scale timber harvests and helped sever centuries-old ties Indigenous people and Mexican Americans had with New Mexico’s forests. While the Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture, Smokey appears on signs and placards in a number of federal lands, including holdings of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and the vast tracts overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

Smokey was part of a huge legacy of the U.S. in the region: an annexation following a bloody war of aggression, the creation of public lands carved from Indigenous territories and Spanish land grants that saw the removal of Indigenous and other nonwhite people, and extractive plunder, all of which continue today, pushing us further into climate crisis.

That legacy is inextricably tied to the Department of the Interior and its present-day role. The Interior describes its sacred duties as protecting the “natural and cultural heritage” of the U.S., including a vast wellspring of natural resources such as coal, uranium, natural gas, and oil located on federal and public lands.

In New Mexico, the nation’s third-largest oil producer, and also home to 23 tribal nations, where more than a third of the land is owned by the federal government, the Interior played a major role in the state’s recent fracking boom. Billions of dollars in oil revenue have filled state coffers from lease sales and investment. In a state that consistently ranks among the poorest and has the highest numbers of murdered and missing Indigenous women, the boom has also threatened the most vulnerable: Indigenous nations and their sacred sites, as well as a desert landscape’s precious freshwater.

That’s why Haaland’s appointment is so important. She has gained notoriety not only in Indian affairs, but also as a Standing Rock water protector, a supporter of Abolish ICE and Medicare for All, a Green New Deal backer, and an opponent of fracking and drilling on federal lands.

Those positions may put her at odds with Republicans and many Democrats — including her future boss. Though Biden shares some relevant goals with Haaland — calling, for instance, for an end to fossil fuel extraction on federal lands — he has disavowed some of the more progressive positions she holds. He assuaged rich donors last year that “nothing will fundamentally change” with his administration and doesn’t support the Green New Deal, specifically the calls for universal jobs and health care.

Haaland’s true test will be whether or not she toes her party’s centrist, corporate line — positions that have grown increasingly hostile toward reforms like Medicare for All, even during a deadly pandemic.

If the Senate approves her nomination, Haaland will make history not once but three times. In 2018, she and Sharice Davids from the Ho-Chunk Nation became the first American Indian women elected to Congress. Biden’s nomination will make Haaland the first American Indian woman to hold a Cabinet-level position and the first American Indian person selected as secretary of the Interior.

Representation matters, especially for Indigenous people who have been categorically excluded from top leadership at the Interior, the very institution that governs many facets of their lives. Haaland’s nomination comes during a year of racial reckoning. After losing a decadeslong battle with Indigenous activists, two major sports franchises — the Washington Football Team and the Cleveland baseball team — committed to retiring their racist Native mascots and team names this year. But the historic challenges that face Indigenous nations and the necessity to massively decarbonize the world’s largest per capita polluter are monumental tasks that go beyond identity and a single administration.

Indigenous and environmental movements will have to apply a special kind of pressure to one of their own as head of the Interior.

Indigenous and environmental movements will have to apply a special kind of pressure to one of their own as head of the Interior, to not allow Haaland to become mere window dressing for a party that has relied on rhetorical acts of inclusion as a source of legitimacy while suppressing or co-opting demands for radical change. The possibilities for achieving such aims are as much determined by the colonial nature of the Interior — and its history of Indigenous genocide and land theft — as they are by a willingness to organize within and against a state institution that has long served powerful corporate interests from both parties.

The Interior Department not only manages public lands and national forests but also human life: 578 federally recognized tribal nations, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiians. That history to us, as citizens of these nations, has been one of colonial paternalism that puts our lands, resources, and livelihoods into a federal trust relationship. But a lack of “trust” runs deep, and for good reason. A recent Indigenous Futures Survey found that 95 percent of Indigenous people distrust the federal government.

Centuries of federal Indian case law have defined that legal relationship as one between a guardian and its wards. The Supreme Court’s 1903 Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock decision, which upheld the allotment of Indian reservation lands, laid down the legal principle that tribes have no title to their land at all. What we possess are mere occupancy rights. The consequences have been devastating. By the end of allotment in 1934, 100 million acres of Native land — two-thirds of what remained following dispossession up to 1887 — went into the hands of white settlers. The court upheld that Congress authorizes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under the authority of the Interior, to dictate the conditions of American Indian life and land. The Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are beholden only to their own sense of morality and justice when it comes to Indigenous people, which has historically worked to the advantage of a land-hungry empire.

Indian affairs were once the charge of the Department of War, prior to being moved to the Interior in 1849. Despite the change, the military waged extermination campaigns against Indigenous nations who stood in the way of Western expansion well into the late 19th century, forcing survivors onto reservations. There, survivors became the Interior’s responsibility and faced conditions no less harsh than open warfare. “Civilization regulations” — upheld by the Bible and the gun — outlawed Indigenous dancing, religion, and culture. The Court of Indian Offenses prosecuted the defiant, and Indian police carried out the sentences and enforced the law, sometimes with lethal violence.


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Indian agents removed children from their families and recalcitrant leaders who refused to cede land, sending them to Bureau of Indian Affairs-run boarding schools that stripped them of their language and culture. By 1900, three-quarters of Native children had been enrolled in boarding schools, a third of whom were sent off-reservation; many never survived long enough to return to their families. Child removal continued even as boarding schools declined in the 20th century. In the early 1970s, an Association on American Indian Affairs report found that more than a quarter of Native children nationwide had been removed from their families; many were adopted out to white families.

In the 1960s, Red Power activists called for the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a new era of tribal sovereignty. What they got instead was an expansion of Interior powers and protections. The activists pushed for and won important policy gains, such as the Indian Self-Determination Act in 1975, the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990; the laws attempted to reverse child removal policies and religious prohibitions, as well as restore tribal autonomy and protections to cultural patrimony. Yet Indigenous people themselves were still largely excluded from executive decision-making power.

The results of policy reforms have been mixed under recent Democratic and Republican administrations. President Barack Obama’s FBI infiltrated the Standing Rock camps against the Dakota Access pipeline. Obama also signed a 2015 law that lifted a four-decade limit on exporting crude oil from the U.S., which, combined with a fracking revolution, greatly increased domestic oil pipelines and production. In 2018, Obama bragged to a group of oil industry elites in Texas about why the United States “suddenly” became the world’s largest oil producer: “That was me, people,” he said. “Just say thank you, please.”

Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, advanced industry-friendly policy while also rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations. He appointed Tara Sweeney as the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, a former oil lobbyist and the second Native woman to hold the position. Trump’s Interior leadership, including Sweeney, was the first administration to take land out of trust since President Harry Truman. Trump also rolled back protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two national monuments and sacred Native sites in southern Utah.

Haaland is in a unique position to confront that history head-on and correct her past mistakes.

While Deb Haaland has stated that she intends to “be fierce” by addressing the Interior’s violent colonial history, reversing Trump-era environmental rollbacks, and empowering Indigenous nations, Black descendants of people enslaved by the Five Civilized Tribes have asked Haaland whether she will be fierce for them too. The harrowing accounts of how tribes from what is now known as the southeastern U.S. were pushed into Oklahoma reservations is well known; less considered is the history of the enslaved Africans these tribes, collectively known as the Five Civilized Tribes, brought with them to Indian territory. Some were kept in bondage even after formal emancipation or until the tribes signed treaties with the Union after the Civil War. Their descendants are called Freedmen. In 2019, Haaland co-sponsored legislation that removed housing protections for the Freedmen in Oklahoma reservations. In recent history, the Five Civilized Tribes have variously implemented a de facto Jim Crow policy of disenfranchising Freedmen.

Haaland is in a unique position to confront that history head-on and correct her past mistakes. The question is whether she can radically change the Interior’s Smokey Bear image, which for so many is a face of white, colonial repression. Regardless of what Haaland is capable of doing, one truth will remain the same: Whether under Obama, Trump, or Biden, Indigenous people are the most advanced and confrontational arm of the climate justice movement. Although Haaland allegedly wasn’t Biden’s first pick for the Interior, her nomination was only possible because of relentless grassroots Indigenous organizing. It’s up to her to listen to those movements — who will move forward with or without her.

Update: December 29, 2020, 6:15 p.m.
This post has been updated to include that Smokey Bear is a symbol of the Department of Agriculture that appears in some of the Interior Department’s land holdings.

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