Native News Pick of the Month: The First Native American Cabinet Secretary

A message to our readers: As we continue to share critical news and information about Indian Country, we are excited to share our new ‘Native News Pick of the Month’ column. Each month, our executive leadership team will select one national news story and offer commentary on the topic.

This month, PWNA President and CEO Joshua Arce offers his thoughts on our January ‘Native News Pick of the Month’: In Indian Country, tears, hope and defiance over nomination of first Native Cabinet secretary via The Washington Post.

Commentary:

Representative Deb Haaland’s appointment as Secretary of the Interior is nothing short of a monumental accomplishment for her, Native peoples, and the U.S. as the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary to the President.

The Department of the Interior’s role is to sustain America’s lands, water, wildlife and energy resources; advocate for island communities; and honor U.S. responsibilities to tribal nations. Bureaus such as Land Management, Ocean Energy Management, National Park Service, Indian Education and Indian Affairs all fall under this department, so you can quickly see the vast responsibilities and high expectations of Haaland. Having worked for the Bureau of Indian Education for nearly 12 years, I can attest to the myriad of challenges a federally employed Native American might face, as well as the bureaucratic red tape that can slow the progress of any project.

That said, Indian Country needed a win and Haaland’s new role represents a monumental shift. She will be met with great fanfare, hooping, honor songs and tears of triumph and vindication when she travels throughout Indian Country. One of PWNA’s Board members, Nikki Pitre (Coeur d’Alene), put it best, “To have my daughter see that this is normal, to have a Native woman at the highest level of the U.S. government, is so important.”

I do hope that tribes, pueblos and Alaska Native corporations are patient and show Haaland grace as she becomes entrenched in the magnitude of projects already underway. Her success within Indian Country will depend on who she assigns to work on Native issues – those who are capable, tactful and energized. It will take time to shift the narrative among leaders who view Native peoples as a problem instead of a solution. Haaland is charting a path for the Interior, and much like driving a vast ocean liner, sharp turns and quick shifts in policy will be nearly impossible – but a course correction is achievable. Policies can be changed, and hope can be restored.

Haaland previously said the Trump administration “essentially gutted everything that would help Indian Country to move forward, and I think there’s a lot of repair to be done.”  She cannot unilaterally right those wrongs, but she can find supporters who continue to advocate for policy change and funding. Moreover, we should not forget that Indian Country is not the sole focus of her new role.

Haaland said, “I’ll be fierce for all of us,” and I welcome that trait in advocacy. Perhaps the largest obstacles for Haaland are in the courts, where she’ll face countless federal and circuit judges and a mostly unchallenged, conservative Supreme Court. This may thwart or delay legal remedies to the tribes and what might be most challenging is seeing her name attached to every new lawsuit against the Interior: Everybody vs. Haaland.

Truthfully, this is the embodiment of being ‘Something Else’ in America today – it comes with the territory and no Secretary of the Interior is spared. While Haaland cannot ‘reset’ the troubled relationship between the federal government and Native Americans, her appointment will mark a turning point in helping to fuel future success for every Indigenous person.

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