February 26, 2021

What Deb Haaland’s Appointment Means

If Rep. Deb Haaland is appointed by Congress, she will oversee the Department of Interior, managing “the earth, mountains, forests, rivers—and Indians”, a federal agency that has upended life for Native Americans for decades.

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When Joe Biden nominated Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico to direct the Department of the Interior, social media posts buzzed.

My American Indians friends and relatives have been rooting for Haaland for weeks, hopeful a Native American would head a cabinet flush with a sordid history of settler-Indian relationships.

In an move to thwart the appointment, a handful of lawmakers has taken a page from the bully’s playbook, calling Haaland a “radical” who threatens “working men and women,” according to the WashingtonPost.

Accusations and lies are laughable to anyone familiar with Haaland’s business profile, and anyone familiar with the history of the Department of Interior, which holds an iron grip on Native American peoples and lands. 

For example, my government-issued CDIB card--a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood--sanctifies my identity as a citizen of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma.

Why would an office of the United States government need to sanction my identity and heritage?

It’s because Department of the Interior has been charged with the oversight of Native affairs for 171 years: that’s seven generations from its creation in 1849, to my generation, certified on my CDIB card.

Wording of the Interior’s responsibilities on its website frame sits role as “management of … the basic responsibilities for Indians,” showing that Native Americans are considered wards of the United States and implies that we cannot manage ourselves. 

In fact, members of my family—like many American Indians—were judged legally incompetent by the Secretary of the Interior.

Indians allotted lands by the Dawes Act in the late 1800s could be labelled as incompetent, which allowed their property to be seized by the US Government. The document says: 

The Secretary of the Interior may, in his discretion, and he is hereby authorized, whenever he shall be satisfied that any Native American allottee is competent and capable of managing his or her affairs at any time.

Thanks to the actions by the Interior, 95 percent of allotted land would eventually be sold to settlers.

Such policies that were aimed at crushing Indian communities.  

For example, after their land was chunked into parcels for each family, the Iowa Indians were left with 90 percent of their land unallotted. The remaining 270,000 acres were claimed by the US government and sold to settlers, according to writer Peter Nabokov.

The Interior’s responsibilities once more took material form, this time in stolen acres.

“Practically every tribe lost land this way,” Nabokov writes.

The intent of the allotment act under the Department of the Interior was to serve as a “mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass,” said Theodore Roosevelt in his annual message to Congress in 1901.

Management of the earth, mountains, forests, rivers—and Indians—by the Interior was a critical component of US-Native treaties.

A “defining moment” occurred when the Secretary of the Interior took actions that would open up the Dakota territory—and other Indigenous lands—and ignore the “treaty to end all treaties.”

The head of the Interior under President Ulysses S. Grant decided that the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 should simply be discounted once rumors of gold in the Black Hills reached Washington DC.

If the rumors were true, then the Black Hills should be “freed as early as possible from Indian occupancy,” wrote the eponymous Columbus Delano, head of the Interior, in 1872.

Delano noted that—if gold were indeed discovered—“I should then deem it advisable … to extinguish the claim of the Indians and open the territory to the occupation of the whites.”

In other words, the Fort Laramie Treaty offered no assurance in light of the material promise of an area “rich in minerals,” he wrote.

Delano arranged to have the Seventh Cavalry trek from Fort Abraham Lincoln (in, what is today, NorthDakota) to the Black Hills: an area reserved for the Sioux under the Fort Laramie treaty.

The expedition, which began on July 2, 1874, was led by a 34-year-old Civil War veteran named George Armstrong Custer, who was accompanied by more than 1,000 troops, 300 head of cattle, and a mélange of scientists, miners, engineers, photographers and news correspondents.

After just a few weeks, Lieutenant Colonel Custer dispatched a courier to Fort Laramie, who reported the discovery of gold and silver.

News spread quickly throughout the country, alerting settlers to the prospect of fortune-hunting in the BlackHills.  

Within two years, the sacred Black Hills were populated by 10,000 pioneers and prospectors.  

And the Secretary of the Interior would write, “I am inclined to think that the occupation of this region of the country is not necessary to the happiness and prosperity of the Indians.”

Children’s history books reflect only a few of the policies that would upend life for Native Americans at the hands of the Department of the Interior.

And the trend continues today.

As readers of the New York Times learned after Joe Biden’s election, policy-makers at the Interior (under the impeached president) rushed to cement dozens of last-minute projects on traditional Native American land, and in National forests and National wilderness areas.

Plans included a copper mine—the largest in the US—an open-pit lithium mine, and a substantive project designed to drill for helium gas.

Such ventures represent a post-script on a long list of looting by the US Government for centuries, with special plundering reserved for Native American peoples’ bodies and homelands.

The prospect of Deb Haaland leading the Department of the Interior offers hope for all of us who honor and respect our relationships with the environment and its inhabitants, and who see beyond the Siren call of treating the natural world we share as a commodity for a few.  

After the nomination was made public, Haaland tweeted: “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”

And for Native Americans, this means at least one voice of reason at the decision-making table.

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Lead photo: Wet Plate Collodion Image of Deb Haaland by Shane Balkowitsch

About the author

Cynthia Coleman, Ph.D.

Cynthia is a Professor of Communications at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, specializing in Native Americans in the media, science and communications. She writes and lectures about how mass media frame conflicts that affect Indigenous communities—particularly conflicts where science, risk, health and the environment take center stage. Her new book, “Environmental Clashes on Native American Land,” is now available.