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Deb Haaland becoming interior secretary is a chance to fix an agency that acts with contempt

Native Americans celebrated the announcement not just because of who Haaland is, but because the agency she will lead treated us so poorly for so long.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) poses with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for a ceremonial swearing-in picture on Capitol Hill in Washington
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., poses for a ceremonial swearing-in picture on Capitol Hill on Jan. 3, 2019.Joshua Roberts / Reuters file

For many Native Americans, the Department of the Interior has been known as a back-alley haven for shills, thieves and crooked, money-hungry American Indian-hating cronies.

But now, we’ll have one of our own stepping in to run the rats out and right old wrongs.

On Thursday, President-elect Joe Biden selected Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., to be his nominee for the next secretary of the Department of the Interior. Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo and one of the two first Native American women elected to Congress in 2018 — Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., a Ho-Chunk, was also elected that year — will not only be the first Native to lead that department. She will also be the first Native American to hold the position of a Cabinet secretary in the history of the United States.

As soon as the news broke, here in Grants, New Mexico — a small dusty hamlet a few miles west of Haaland’s home, the Laguna Pueblo reservation — cheers and the jubilant honking of horns drowned out the town’s typical deafening silence.

Back in D.C., Haaland won’t exactly be standing on the shoulders of giants. With few exceptions, the majority of previous Interior Department heads were notoriously unscrupulous and wildly greedy. Many of them treated the office as a cash cow, withholding billions of dollars from millions of Indigenous peoples — which adds insult to injury given that 1.5 billion acres of land were wrongfully stolen from this land’s first peoples.

Native Americans’ collective massive sigh of relief Thursday wasn’t just about representation.

In the mid-1800s, for instance, not long after the department was formed, former Secretary Carl Schurz said about Natives Americans: “If Indians are to live at all, they must learn to live like white men.” He added: “The alternative to civilization is extermination ...”

His successors were hardly more open minded — and this wasn’t only a phenomenon of the 19th century. Indeed, in just the last two decades, one interior secretary after another has been hauled before judges for blatantly lying to the courts about their handling of land and monies held in trust for Indigenous peoples.

In 1999, for instance, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin were held in contempt of court for “engaging in a shocking pattern of deception,” the judge said, after failing to produce records that would account for money Native Americans hadn’t received from the federal government but which they were lawfully owed.

In 2001, during the George W. Bush administration, a federal judge held Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton in contempt after a 29-day trial for “committing a fraud on the court by misleading” the judge and for filing inaccurate reports regarding money owed to tribes. The judge said Norton’s behavior was “disgraceful.”

With few exceptions, the majority of previous Interior Department heads were notoriously unscrupulous and wildly greedy.

Most recently, President Donald Trump’s former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke looked to return the department to earlier form by eagerly shrinking the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by 85 percent to drill for oil and gas. The 1.35 million acre landscape is sacred to the Diné, Hopi, Zuni, Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes; he didn’t listen.

But when has anything sacred to Indigenous peoples stopped the United States from stealing it, desecrating it or carving four white men into it, as they did at Mount Rushmore?

But the villainous history of the Interior Department doesn’t even stop with Native Americans. On Feb. 19, 1942, in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the department was put in charge of arresting and forcing an estimated 120,000 mostly Japanese American citizens into internment camps.

And which specific part of Interior was in charge of this horrendous racist act? The Bureau of Indian Affairs, because it realized that the U.S. already had internment camps — Indian reservations (or “the rez.”) One camp, Poston Interment Camp, was placed on the existing Colorado River Indian rez, and Japanese Americans were held there for three years in what was called “an internment camp within an internment camp.”

Haaland is stepping into an office brimming with skeletons in the closet.

So Native Americans’ collective massive sigh of relief Thursday wasn’t just about representation. A new scintilla of hope has bloomed among us in part because Haaland, like millions of Indigenous peoples, strongly believes in and practices the Seven Generation rule. The rule says that all significant decisions must be made with the next seven generations in mind, and includes preserving and protecting the water, the earth and the two leggeds and the four leggeds for people you will never meet — at least in this life.

“Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce,” Haaland tweeted in reference to her nomination. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”

Haaland, though, is stepping into an office brimming with skeletons in the closet. It’s a place with a sordid past and an unpleasant present, especially with regard to its treatment of Native Americans. It’s not going to be an easy task to clean it up or force the bureaucracy to change. Plus, there are 574 federally recognized tribes — that’s a lot of folks to please, and she won’t please them all. But she holds onto ancient principles that white men didn’t understand when they first invaded this land (a lot of them still don’t today).

Native Americans have survived 528 years of violence, racism, hatred and even genocide on this land. Prompted by bigotry and shame, America has sought to keep Native Americans as relics of its past rather than welcoming us into its present and allowing us to help lead this country into a shared future. Today, little by little, people are being forced to acknowledge, listen to and address Indigenous peoples.

With Haaland at the helm of the Interior Department, the oil and gas industry — which has long had the ears of those at the agency — will have to, as well, while addressing her as “Madam Secretary.” If they don't like it, there's the door.