A “New Deal” For Indian Country?

by Terry Anderson

Deb Haaland, a Native American, is now the secretary of the Department of the Interior. The department houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency for relations with Indian tribes. Chief Justice John Marshall referred to these groups in 1832 as “domestic dependent nations.” In that same decision, Marshall declared the relationship of Indians to the federal government “like that of a ward to his guardian,” making the secretary the guardian. The ward-guardian relationship became further entrenched in federal law when the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Burke Act of 1906 explicitly said Indian land was to be held in trust by the Department of the Interior and could not be released from trusteeship until the secretary of the interior—now Haaland—deems Indians to be “competent and capable.”

Painting herself the same dark shade of green as her boss, President Biden, has won Secretary Haaland support from environmentalists, but this is not the leadership Native Americans need from her. As interior secretary, Haaland is in a position to oppose the explicit racism in federal Indian policy, for nothing is more racist than calling people wards and giving the government the authority to decide whether they are competent and capable. Will Haaland’s policies acknowledge that Indians are “competent and capable” or will they continue holding them in colonial bondage?

Secretary Haaland can make changes in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) because she is the trustee of fifty-six million acres of Indian Country. (Throughout Indian Country the acronym BIA is taken to mean “bossing Indians around” by wrapping them in “white tape.”)

Letting the Tribes Prosper

Start with Haaland’s position on oil and gas development. She has consistently said she would “stop all oil and gas leasing on federal lands” and supports “a ban on fracking,” while calling for “no new pipelines.” Holding to these positions and moving the Biden administration’s Green New Deal forward, however, would have major effects on reservations, especially those with significant energy potential. If Native Americans are competent and capable, and they are, theirs is the right to make decisions about oil and gas development on their lands …

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A “New Deal” For Indian Country?