Opinion | An Uncomfortable Seat at the Table

Within minutes of the announcement that President-elect Joe Biden had nominated Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico as interior secretary, Native social media was celebrating. People in our community who have met Ms. Haaland began posting photos of her at Native events throughout Indian Country; one of my friends wrote, “Our auntie has done it!”

The jubilation is warranted, because Ms. Haaland, a citizen of Laguna Pueblo, one of the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes, would be the first Native American to head the Department of the Interior, indeed the first Native American to serve in the cabinet at all. But there is no question that if Ms. Haaland is confirmed, her seat at the table would be a very hot seat indeed.

Native representation is good, but the community will want her to deliver on expectations. And right now, expectations are stratospheric. In the Native community, many assume that Ms. Haaland will be our warrior, righting centuries of federal wrongs against our people and our tribes, especially those inflicted by the Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But Ms. Haaland would need to calibrate a delicate balance between her populist identity as a champion of Native rights and tribal sovereignty and her new role defending the interests of the federal system. One of the first two Native women to be elected to Congress, Ms. Haaland is a remarkable trailblazer, but as anyone who has done it will affirm, breaking new trail, especially as one climbs upward, is riddled with potential mishap.

Ms. Haaland would not be the first Native American to serve in the upper echelons of a presidential administration. Charles Curtis, Herbert Hoover’s running mate in 1928, was Native and even spoke fluent Kaw, which he learned at his grandmother’s knee. Curtis, though, is not admired as a role model, but instead derided as a reactionary assimilationist who promoted policies that significantly harmed Natives. The Curtis Act of 1898, which he introduced as a member of the House, broke up tribal lands, weakened tribal governments and abolished tribal courts.

Nearly 100 years after Curtis’s election, many of the tensions between the federal government and our tribal communities that existed then still persist. While 1970s-style occupations have largely disappeared, many Natives view them as necessary acts of civil disobedience necessary to oppose longstanding, obsolete and abusive policies governing the relationship between tribes and the Department of the Interior, particularly in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

These days we are more likely to see Native lawyers filing lawsuits in federal courts than Natives occupying federal property, yet the fundamental conflicts are the same.

The battle over the right of Native tribes to hunt bison in wildlife access corridors adjacent to Yellowstone National Park is one example. Some non-Native wildlife conservationists and park preservationists oppose the hunting while the tribes argue that it is necessary to preserve cultural practices and provide food to tribal members. How Ms. Haaland will reconcile her Native-centered beliefs and actions with the mandates and duties of her new position leading a department that oversees the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management will be closely watched.

Native opinion is not monolithic on any issue, but the community largely remains resistant to colonization, assimilation norms and centrist compromises. If she deviates too much from our community’s heroic perception of her, some may brand her as a “Hangs-Around-the-Fort Indian,” another Curtis-style assimilationist, a sellout.

But the Native community must also have realistic expectations. We must grant Ms. Haaland wide latitude as she navigates the land mines she would face in her new role. She is sure to occasionally falter — and when she does our community will hold her accountable, that’s a certainty. However, the Native community must exercise patience, especially as she finds her footing in the early days, and I think we will. We all very much want her to succeed.

But as time passes, if Ms. Haaland consistently makes major steps that sacrifice Native concerns and tribal sovereignty for the goals of the administration and the Department of the Interior’s mandates, the criticism from our community will be swift and sure. The legacy of Charles Curtis should be a cautionary tale. At most, Ms. Haaland will serve eight years under a Biden administration, but she will be Native her whole life.

Claudia Lawrence is a freelance journalist.

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