Rep. Deb Haaland will be sitting before Congress today as senators consider whether she should become the next secretary of the Interior Department. If you want to join me in watching the hearing, here’s the link.
The confirmation hearing is historic for a number of reasons. Haaland could become the first-ever Native American to sit on a president’s Cabinet. Even more significant is that this could-be first would be held by a woman. However, Haaland’s confirmation hearings won’t go easy. Senate Republicans aren’t celebrating this nomination from President Joe Biden as it threatens their beloved fossil fuel industry homies. Some of her most-staunch opponents include Sen. Steve Daines and Sen. John Barrasso. As Emma Dumain of E&E News reported, the oil and gas interests of the Senate Republicans overseeing today’s hearing amounts to nearly $8.8 million throughout their careers.
So if Haaland hits any roadblocks, you’ll know why.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re keeping tabs on one of this administration’s most high-stakes nominations. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. With a future Secretary Haaland as a possibility, tribal nations are celebrating. This welcomed change signals a newfound recognition for tribal sovereignty in the federal government. This simple understanding around nation-to-nation relationships could especially help boost tribal response to the pandemic, which has dramatically hurt Indigenous communities.
The COVID-19 death toll continues to rise in the Navajo Nation. At the time of publishing, the total death count is at least 1,144. To protect its tribal members, the Navajo Nation has enacted a stay-at-home order, as well as a 9 p.m. curfew. However, in a community where households still lack access to water and electricity, the struggle is real.
Haaland offers them—and the rest of Indian Country—some hope. The highly contagious coronavirus has hit Indigenous communities in the U.S. at 3.5 times the rate of non-Hispanic white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the heart of this failed pandemic response is “the U.S. government’s failure to uphold its legal trust and treaty obligations to Indian Country,” as the Center for American Progress put it in a report released last year.
The poor infrastructure I already outlined above are part of that. Without running water, how are people supposed to wash their hands to stop the spread? Without the internet, how can households access the critical information they need about the virus? The federal government’s inability to recognize tribal sovereignty certainly makes things worse. In South Dakota, for instance, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe implemented highway checkpoints to keep non-residents from entering their community and spreading the virus, as well as to keep record of people’s comings and goings for contact tracing purposes. Gov. Kristi Noem, however, tried to stop the checkpoints, arguing they were kept essential services from reaching their necessary destinations.
“The fundamental understanding of tribal sovereignty will go a long way.”
“The fundamental understanding of tribal sovereignty will go a long way,” says Wayne Ducheneaux, the executive director of the Native Governance Center, which has documented the pandemic’s impact on tribal nations. “Having someone who leads the Department of Interior, I imagine, would help really change the nature of response to the COVID-19 pandemic to one that is adversarial and looking to limit in scope tribal sovereignty to one that’s going to be more in the spirit of partnership.”
Many Indigenous leaders have voiced concerns about the loss of essential traditional knowledge with the loss of elders to COVID-19. The scientific community now recognizes that traditional ecological knowledge is key to addressing the climate crisis. With each tribal elder lost to this deadly virus, another piece of essential information that could help us protect our planet is lost, as well. Haaland understands the intimate relationship between Native people and the Earth.
“For time immemorial, the Native folks from this land who were the original stewards of the land, the original caretakers of the land, lived in harmony with nature,” Ducheneaux says. “It’s one of those things we share a really close DNA. Our DNA is in this ground as much as this ground’s DNA is in ours. And Rep. Haaland comes from that. She’s a testament to the resiliency of Indian Country.”
Part of centering that knowledge involves returning land to its rightful caretakers: the Indigenous. There’s a lot of excitement that a potential Sec. Haaland would actually entertain this idea on a serious federal level. It’s already receiving momentum, says Jade Begay, the climate justice campaign director for NDN Collective, which has actively organized around the LANDBACK movement. The Nez Perce Tribe in eastern Oregon, for example, reclaimed an ancestry village site that the U.S. government stole from them in breaking an 1855 treaty. It’s time for the U.S. to pave a path to return similarly stolen lands to the tribal nations that are owed.
“The land back conversation and people engaging with actual land back—meaning giving land back and putting land back into Indigenous peoples’ hands—has come out of us seeing what happens when there is mismanagement of ecosystems and various regions,” Begay says. “We know this is true in California with the wildfires.”
The possibilities are endless should Haaland become the next secretary of the Interior. For Indigenous advocates on the ground, her nomination spurs hope—for their future, the future of their non-Indigenous peers, and the future of their non-human relatives.