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Haaland: Era where tribes on backburner over

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In her first press conference as secretary of the Interior Wednesday, Deb Haaland promised to repair the nation-to-nation relationship between tribes and the federal government and to enact real consultation with tribes on important issues — not just within Interior but across the federal government.

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Deb Haaland

Appropriately enough, the first Native American Interior secretary chose members of the Native American Journalists Association for the Zoom conference, which she scheduled for her very first day on the job.

“I feel the support (from Indian Country), the love and also the pressure … to get this right,” she told the field of 10 reporters, each of whom was allowed one question in the 30-minute pad-and-paper-only briefing.

“I want the era where tribes have been on the back burner to be over,” she said, adding that she trusts President Joe Biden to “live up to his word” to involve tribes meaningfully and early on in every decision that pertains to them.

Her principal deputy assistant secretary, Bryan Newland, added that consultation would be a chief focus of his.

“As a former tribal leader myself (Newland was president of the Bay Mills Indian Community), I’ve experienced the check-the-box listening sessions,” Newland said. “Tribes expect better of us. We’re going to show it with our actions.”

Asked specifically about the 10-mile radius around Chaco National Historic Park protected from oil and gas drilling, which she supported as a member of Congress but some Navajo allottees oppose, Haaland said she looks forward to “having many more conversations” on the issue.

While realizing many Americans depend on extractive industry for their livelihood, she said Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan includes support for green jobs, such as in the outdoor tourism industry, that may start to replace the mining and drilling economy.

She vowed to take a “measured, balanced” approach to preserving public lands while also considering the economy.

“We’ll dig in on this issue,” she said, noting that Chaco is an ancestral homeland of her own tribe as well as the Navajo.

Graham Brewer of High Country News brought up one of the thorniest issues of her congressional career — her vote to pass the latest reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, which excluded the Cherokee Freedmen since the tribe had earlier voted to strip them of their tribal membership.

Haaland noted that tribal governments alone have the authority to determine who is eligible for membership, although Interior would be willing to consult with them on such issues if they wanted that.

Asked how she would navigate being a tribal member and also a government official, Haaland said she was quite used to that, having been a U.S. representative.

“As a member of Congress, I never made a decision that made everybody happy,” she quipped, adding, “I am part of a team. I will rely on the many experts in this building.”

NAJA President Francine Compton asked Haaland for her response to a New York Times editorial about her titled “After five centuries, a Native American with real power.”

“I don’t feel I have a lot of power,” protested Haaland. “I feel compelled to follow the laws of this country and make the best decisions I can make.

“There have been so many people whose shoulders I stand on,” she said, “Native American activists on land rights, fishing rights … that’s where the power lies, with the people.”


About The Author

Cindy Yurth

Cindy Yurth was the Tséyi' Bureau reporter, covering the Central Agency of the Navajo Nation, until her retirement on May 31, 2021. Her other beats included agriculture and Arizona state politics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University with a cognate in geology. She has been in the news business since 1980 and with the Navajo Times since 2005, and is the author of “Exploring the Navajo Nation Chapter by Chapter.”

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