December 19, 2020

President Elect Biden has continued to make historic selections for his cabinet positions.  Today it was reported that Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) was nominated to fill the position Secretary of the Interior, marking a turning point for the U.S. government’s relationship with the nation’s Indigenous peoples.  In selecting Haaland, a member of Pueblo of Laguna, Biden placed a descendant of the original people to populate North America atop a 171-year-old institution that has often had a troubled relationship with the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes.  Three divisions of Interior have a tremendous impact on Indian Country, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, which manages billions held in trust by the U.S. government.

I was able to see some of this “trouble” when I worked with the Native Tribes in Utah.   There are eight sovereign tribal governments in Utah:  Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, Navajo Nation, Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, San Juan Southern Paiute, Skull Valley Band of Goshute, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Ute Indian Tribe.  One case that stuck out was with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.  When I was there during the 1980’s the Corps of Engineers had constructed 12 different reservoirs in the Wasatch Mountains to store and divert water to the Colorado River to be used in California.  The original agreement specified this diversion would be compensated for by building three dams to send water to the Ute Reservation.  Even as I worked on additional reservoirs to store California water, none had been built or even started for the Utes.

Haaland was born in Arizona to a Native American mother who served in the Navy and a Norwegian American father who was an active-duty Marine.  Haaland bounced between 13 public schools as the family changed military bases.  At 15, she worked at a bakery, and later attended law school with the help of student loans and food stamps, occasionally experiencing homelessness as a single mother.  Now after serving a single term in Congress, Haaland will oversee a department that manages roughly one-fifth of land in the U.S.  While New Mexico is one of the top oil-and gas-producing states, Haaland has pledged to transform the department from a champion of fossil fuel development.  Instead, the focus will be on promoting renewable energy and policies to mitigate climate change.

Thoughts:  During the 1970’s the Keep America Beautiful campaign featured Iron Eyes Cody, the actor who played an Indian shedding a tear at the sight of a littered American landscape.  This became one of television’s best-known and most-honored commercials.  Cody had roles in nearly 100 movies, including ”Sitting Bull,” ”Paleface” and ”A Man Called Horse,” as well as guest appearances on television programs like ”Bonanza,” ”Gunsmoke” and ”Rawhide.”  Hopefully Haaland will be able to shed a tear seeing an opposite landscape, free from garbage, smoke, and other pollutants.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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