Jim Enote: It is time for ‘something else’ at the Interior Department

The Senate should confirm Deb Haaland as interior secretary so Native Americans will finally have a voice

(Amr Alfiky | The New York Times) Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) speaks to reporters in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 19, 2020 as President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris look on. Haaland is Biden's choice to lead the Interior Department and is the first Native American to be chosen as a cabinet secretary.

For generations, Native Americans have been an afterthought for the federal government. When extermination and assimilation policies failed, the question of what to do about our nation’s “Indian problem” left us marginalized.

We have not forgotten that the Office of Indian Affairs was initially established under the War Department. We were a nation at war with its original inhabitants.

Indian Affairs eventually became part of the Department of Interior, often referred to as the “department of everything else.” The marginalization of Native peoples continues to this day in large and small ways, as evidenced by exit-poll results on election night categorizing Native Americans as “something else.”

Though tongue-in-cheek “something else” T-shirts have appeared across Indian Country, President Joe Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Interior signals how profoundly and positively things are changing.

Laguna Pueblo tribal member and New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland’s nomination to be the next interior secretary is long overdue, and she should be confirmed without delay. Not only because the Interior Department oversees trust and treaty responsibilities to tribes, but because so many aspects of Interior’s portfolio touch Indian Country, including the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, which manage “public lands” that are Native American ancestral lands.

A perspective long ignored is about to find a voice in Deb Haaland.

Haaland has often said she is a 35th-generation New Mexican. But the lands we now call “New Mexico” have been called that for only about six generations. This timeline is a good reminder that we have been here practicing our traditional knowledge systems — stewarding the land, farming, raising families and passing along our culture — since long before the United States was an idea.

Now, a small minority in Congress is objecting to her confirmation, purportedly based on ideological opposition to positive steps that Biden has taken around fossil fuels. Some of these same members were silent when evidence emerged that the last administration’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Land Management had repeatedly mocked Native people and our worldviews. This derision suggests their opposition might be based on “something else.”

In contrast, Haaland’s nomination sends a powerful and uplifting message. She has advocated for the representation of marginalized voices, job growth, broadband deployment, climate resiliency and water infrastructure. She will reenergize the government-to-government relationship between the United States and tribes, and she will play a key leadership role in Biden’s commitment to involve tribes in the care and management of public lands that are of cultural significance to tribal nations.

This commitment includes restoring Bears Ears National Monument and recommitting to collaborative management between tribes and land managers there, but let that be only the first step. Tribes must be at the table before plans develop, and we must be a part of decision-making. This must include free, prior and informed consent for federal projects that affect Native lands and resources, be they on or off reservations.

As we work to repair policies that have damaged our public lands and communities of color, Haaland’s words ring true: “A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior.” The days of Native people as an afterthought are ending.

Haaland’s confirmation will also reinforce that climate change is back on the table. Tribal nations no longer have the liberty to migrate in response to climate change. We must adjust, we must reclaim, and we must apply our Traditional Knowledge to survive. We must do it quickly, and we must have Haaland’s leadership at Interior.

Jim Enote

Jim Enote is a Zuni tribal member, CEO of the Colorado Plateau Foundation and chairs the board of the Grand Canyon Trust.