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Op-Ed: Deb Haaland: Moving forward on priorities for Indian Country

By Deb Haaland

U.S. Interior Secretary

When President Joe Biden nominated me to be the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, I felt the profound importance of what that moment meant for Indigenous peoples in our country. I knew then, as I still feel now, that we’re at the beginning of a new era where Indigenous knowledge in our work to combat systemic inequities and craft policies to ensure fairness and a bright future for everyone is valued and prioritized.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

Representation matters. When people whose communities have long been underrepresented and oppressed are at the decision-making table, we can develop solutions that benefit all of us.

I’m proud to be part of an administration that recognizes and trusts that my life experiences can inform policy-making in an effort to correct the mistakes of the past and help to create a future our ancestors would be proud of. With humility and gratitude, part of my role at the department is to be a megaphone for tribal issues and bring Indigenous representation to the highest levels of government. Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians have pushed for this kind of representation for hundreds of years.

There is much work ahead.

During my time in the U.S. Congress and in response to what I heard from Indian Country, I made the missing and murdered Indigenous people’s crisis a priority and passed the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act. Now, with the formation of a new Missing and Murdered Unit and the launch of the Not Invisible ActCommission, the Interior Department is leading the way to implement these landmark laws. Working with the Department of Justice, we are ensuring that resources across the federal government bring justice to our families.

I am a daughter, a mother, a sister and an “auntie.” I understand what loss of a loved one to this kind of violence would mean.

As we continue to work on the crises that face Indian Country, one priority is to make sure the federal government recognizes that the long history of forced assimilation has contributed to the trauma and disparities that exist in our communities today.

Sharing the truth of this dark chapter in our nation’s history in order to begin to heal is why, in June, I launched a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. It includes identifying boarding school facilities and sites; the location of known and possible child burial sites located at or near school facilities; and the identities and tribal affiliations of children interred at such locations.

Currently, the department is compiling decades of records that will help us understand and share the full picture of this tragedy. It is not the only focus, but is an important part of our work to bring the truth to light. The department is also building a framework for how we engage with tribes, boarding school survivors, families, and outside organizations. Later this year, we will hold tribal consultations to discuss ways to protect and share information and how to protect grave sites.

The traumas of the past and the inequities of today intersect and compound the dynamics of power and oppression.

Thankfully, we have an ally in President Biden who recognizes that addressing systemic oppression is central to building back better. The president’s pandemic recovery plan has made historic and unprecedented investments in tribal communities, including billions in funding for infrastructure development, public safety, social services and important governmental programs.

The Biden-Harris administration also robustly includes Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities as we build a clean energy economy that creates good-paying jobs and conserves our natural resources. Like many communities of color, Indigenous communities have borne the burden of climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately. Many communities must make tough decisions of whether to leave their ancestral homelands or stay and manage sea level rise, extreme heat, catastrophic storms and water shortages brought on by climate change.

The President’s Build Back Better agenda will enable the Interior Department to help clean up legacy pollution on and near tribal lands and accelerate solar and wind energy projects on our public lands, which will help power Indigenous communities. Additional investments in broadband internet, clean water infrastructure, transportation and climate resilience will ensure better health outcomes, increase opportunity and promote self-governance.

Across the administration, we are ensuring that tribal governments, organizations and advocates are consulted in policies that impact all of Indian Country.

As we enter this new era, I feel the profound weight and opportunity of this moment. I feel the responsibility to carry on the legacy of the many Native leaders who came before me. Their charge — and mine — is one in which equity, access and science can and will guide the department’s decision-making.

As we move forward together, we will never forget the past. Native American history is American history, and as a country we must know that history so that we can grieve together, heal, and build a better future for our children and our children’s children.

These first months have shown me and the country that we can accomplish more if we work together. I know that by acknowledging the past and valuing Indigenous knowledge, we can build a brighter future for everyone.

Deb Haaland, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary and is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna. This op-ed appears in Indian Country Today.

Guest Contributor
This article was submitted by a guest contributor.