Commentary: Indigenous Utahns are watching to see if the Senate will confirm Deb Haaland

Mitt Romney and Mike Lee should vote to confirm Haaland as interior secretary.

(Matt Brown | AP photo) This Feb. 21 photo shows a billboard in Billings, Montana, displays support for New Mexico U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, who has been nominated to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to lead the agency that has broad oversight over tribal affairs and energy development.

As Navajo Nation Council delegates representing Utah Navajos, and members of the Navajo Utah Commission, we are writing to express our support for the confirmation of Rep. Deb Haaland as secretary of the Department of the Interior.

We encourage Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee to consider her confirmation as an opportunity to right historic wrongs while building on recent achievements that have strengthened relations between the Navajo Nation and the state of Utah.

It was only two months ago that Congress finally passed the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement Act, which recognizes the Navajo Nation’s water rights in the Colorado River basin in Utah and provides $220 million to build much-needed water projects in San Juan County, where more than 40% of Navajo homes lack running water. Passage of the Settlement Act came only after Romney and other members of the Utah delegation stepped forward to express the bill’s urgency after it had languished for years.

The confirmation of Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior, which oversees the federal government’s relationships with our tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is also long overdue.

It has been nearly two centuries since Secretary of War John Calhoun founded the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Department of War, in 1824. Twenty-five years later, the bureau was moved to the newly-formed Department of the Interior.

Today, the Department of Interior oversees 500 million acres of public lands, waters, wildlife and natural resources, and is singularly responsible for upholding treaty responsibilities to Native American tribes, including more than 55 million acres of lands held in trust for Native Americans by the federal government. Yet the legacy of mistrust and cultural destruction from the Bureau’s origins still lingers heavily across the Native Nations.

Without Haaland’s confirmation, the federal government threatens to only further a legacy of failing to include Indigenous nations and voices in decisions about the education and health of our tribes, fossil fuel development projects and land management plans. As Navajo Nation Council Delegates, we will continue working with Romney and Lee and the Utah delegation to find consensus on issues that impact all Utahns.

We know that Haaland is a proven leader, and she is the right person to lead the Department of Interior into a hopeful new era of increased trust between tribes and the federal government. Utah’s senators once again have the opportunity to take the necessary steps towards correcting a broken legacy, and we hope to see this confirmation usher in a new future for the sovereignty of the tribes.

Nathaniel Brown

Nathaniel Brown is a Navajo Nation Council delegate representing Chilchinbeto, Dennehotso and Kayenta, and is chair of the Navajo Utah Commission.

Charlaine Tso

Charlaine Tso is a Navajo Nation Council delegate representing Mexican Water, To’likan, Teesnospos, Aneth and Red Mesa, and a member of the Navajo Utah Commission.

Herman Daniels

Herman Daniels is a Navajo Nation Council delegate representing Tsah Bii Kin, Navajo Mountain, Shonto and Oljato, and a member of Navajo Utah Commission