Kai Wright: I'm Kai Wright, in for Tanzina Vega. You're listening to The Takeaway. Yesterday, Deb Haaland made history when she was confirmed as the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Secretary Haaland, is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo and is not just the first Native American to lead the Interior Department, but the first Native cabinet secretary of any sort in US history. Here she is the last month during her confirmation hearing.
Deb Haaland: I believe we all have a stake in the future of our country and I believe that every one of us, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, shares a common bond, our love for the outdoors, and a desire, and obligation to keep our nation livable for future generations. I carry my life experiences with me everywhere I go. It's those experiences that give me hope for the future. If an indigenous woman from humble beginnings can be confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, our country holds promise for everyone.
Kai Wright: Secretary Haaland was elected to the House of Representatives in 2018, and she served as one of the first, two Native American women elected to Congress. Now she will serve as head of the Interior Department which oversees Public Lands and Indian Affairs. Many Republicans opposed Haaland's nomination, mostly for her positions on climate change and fossil fuels. For more on her confirmation, I'm joined by Julian Brave NoiseCat, the vice president of policy and strategy for Data for Progress. Julian, thanks for joining us.
Julian: [foreign language]. Thank you for having me.
Kai Wright: Also, with us is Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a Ute Mountain, Ute tribal member, and former co-chair of Bears Ears Inner Tribal Coalition. Regina, thanks for being here.
Regina: No problem. It's a great honor.
Kai Wright: Julian, you have been quite vocal in your support for Deb Haaland to beat for this position. Can you walk us through your thoughts on why this will mean something?
Julian: I think to understand the significance of Haaland's confirmation, you have to understand the history of the Interior Department and what it has done to Native people. The third Interior Secretary, a man named Alexander Stuart, described the United States mission as, "Civilize or exterminate Native people." Throughout its history, the Interior Department has played a leading role in that attempted assimilation and annihilation of Native Nations and people, whether it be through the implementation of the Dawes Act in the late 1800s, which privatized and alienated millions of acres of Native land, to the kidnapping of children who were taken away to boarding schools where our languages and cultures were often quite literally beaten out of us, or through the era of termination in the mid-1900s, from the 40s to the 60s, when the stated policy of the United States was to, "Terminate Native Nations," and our legal status.
Against that history, the nomination of a Laguna Pueblo woman who at her first Senate confirmation hearing before the Energy and Natural Resource Committee, came speaking her Keres language, acknowledge that the hearing was taking place on the territory of the Piscataway people, is a more remarkable shift. Haaland went to the camps, erected the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and cooked green chili stew and tortillas for the water protectors. I think that the juxtaposition of her presence and leadership with the deep and very harmful history of the Interior Department in the United States just says all you need to know about why this is so significant.
Kai Wright: Regina, what do you think that shift will be, that Julian's talking about there and the relationship between the federal government and the indigenous communities now? On a practical level, what will that shift be?
Regina: Well, as we all know, when any of our leaders visit Washington DC, and I think it's typical of any group that visits Washington DC, either you're granted a 30-minute meeting, if you're lucky you may get an hour and usually half of that time spent is recapping history, recapping the historical traumas. With having Deb Haaland there, now we can get down to business maybe 15 to 30 minutes, a little earlier, and really [inaudible 00:04:13] some of the issues.
We take it light-hearted sometimes, but it really does put a little stent in some of the goals and trying to get down to business. I can remember many times upon visits when our tribal leadership would go into Washington DC. It's rather surprising how many people are very unaware of a lot of the history and the current issues that many of the tribal nations face today.
Kai Wright: What is that business? What is the business you hope to see Secretary Haaland prioritize on a policy level?
Regina: On a policy level, I think to continue to elevate the level of consultation. Many times, consultation is one of the most lightly taken within agencies and for organizations that work with tribal nations. It is not a mere check on the box on the form that you're filling out. It is an obligation, it's also the accountability upon the federal government to ensure that this happens because tribes, as federally recognized groups, have that sovereignty and voice that get to enjoy that government-to-government conversation, which gets taken very lightly. I think that'll be one huge, huge step in an entirely different direction, which historically gets taken very lightly or falls by the wayside.
Kai Wright: Julian, you spoke with Secretary Haaland last year. What about you? What are some changes you foresee her bringing to the Interior Department?
Julian: I completely agree with what the councilwoman just said. I think that one thing that I'm very excited about is that, over the last 10 years, we have seen, at the grassroots level, a number of movements arise that have shown indigenous peoples leading in issues of environmental justice and environmentalism, and conservation. If you think about the NODAPL movement at Standing Rock that I mentioned before, the No Keystone XL movement, the movement that the councilwoman helped lead to protect Bears Ears, there's a theme of indigenous people standing up and speaking for protection of the environment, protection of the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, the fish that we rely on, all of that.
I think that Haaland's leadership in the Congress on those issues is well known among environmentalists and activists and Native people and I think that her elevation now to the cabinet signals that grassroots leadership is being recognized at the highest levels of government. I'm very hopeful that Haaland will be able to combine those things, the sovereignty and rights of Native nations, and the imperative to protect and preserve the environment and our climate for future generations.
Kai Wright: Julian, what do you think--? I guess most people don't really understand it. I believe most people don't really understand what the Interior Department does in the first place. Can we back up and just give us an idea of what it is that the Secretary is going to oversee?
Julian: Yes, absolutely. The Interior Department is a sprawling bureaucracy that oversees a fifth of the nation's landmass and waters. It also manages a great deal of natural resources, and the nation-to-nation relationship with the 574 federally recognized tribes across the country. It's a quite wide-ranging department and I think it's worth adding to that context, not just the history that I mentioned before of Interior's role in the colonization and theft of lands and resources from Native people, but the more recent history under the Trump administration that the Interior Department was significantly, I'd say, tampered with.
The Bureau of Land Management, for example, was relocated to Grand Junction Colorado, which led many lifelong civil servants to leave the agency. There was a fire sale of leases to drill for oil and gas on public lands at the end of the Trump administration, and there were countless rules that were messed with, or rolled back, or changed. The Interior Department is this big, sprawling bureaucracy that was significantly injured over the last four years. That is the context that Madam Secretary Haaland is now stepping in to lead.
Kai Wright: Regina, what does her confirmation mean for Indigenous women, in particular, throughout the US?
Regina: Historically, just straight across the board, women have faced a lot of challenges and no matter what area they choose to go into. As an indigenous woman, sometimes we're up against different cultures and traditional beliefs. Many of the southwestern tribes, they don't believe in traditionally installing females into leadership, especially within their own cultural realms. When we decided to take that big jump and pursue a voice in politics, sometimes it takes a little bit to convince our elders and to convince people that have real stern beliefs in the cultural ways that this is something that could help our people.
There's many challenges we have to overcome. I'm just going to share real quick experience that I had serving as the only female member amongst the other four tribes of the Bears Ears Inner Tribal Coalition. I had a representative from the Pueblo of Zuni and the Hopi tribe whom, at some point, I realized traditionally these individuals don't normally deal with a female in leadership
and that really took me for a moment. I had to consult with my father and one of my grandmothers and asked. I was very, very fearful of what my next steps were going to be.
They advised me to sit down with the gentleman and just put it on the table and ask, and that would help me determine what my next steps would be. Would I continue working as a leader within the group, or would I step aside and for the betterment of the movement, allow for a male member represent our tribal voice. I was really happy. The outcome was nothing what I expected. I was very gracious to continue on, which they assured me that times are changing, and even within our culture and ceremonies, there's always a position for a female, the motherly figure, who has that caring, kind-hearted, gentle way about things but yet knows when to be stern.
Interviewer: Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk is a Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Member, and former co-chair of Bears Ears Inner Tribal Coalition. Julian Brave NoiseCat is vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress. Julian, Regina thanks so much for joining us.
Regina: It was my honor. [crosstalk]
Julian: Thank you so much for having me.
Interviewer: We've also invited Secretary Haaland on the show to chat with us. We are looking forward to having her on.
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