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.

The Ute Tribe in southern Colorado illustrates what “competent and capable” Indians can do. Biden’s January announcement of a freeze on oil and gas leasing on federal lands shook the tribe, which has obtained sovereignty “one barrel at a time.” Because the BIA controls so much reservation land, the tribe feared the ban might apply to it. A letter from Luke Duncan, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, called the freeze “a direct attack on our economy, sovereignty, and our right to self-determination.” Resource revenues from the tribe’s oil and gas resources go into the Southern Ute Growth Fund, estimated to be worth $4 billion, making each of the 1,400 tribal members a millionaire. Needless to say, the Southern Ute are leery of a Native American interior secretary who supports President Biden’s green policies and says she wants to stop oil and gas leasing.

Fortunately, Biden responded quickly, saying tribes were exempt from the freeze. Even if this decision holds under Haaland’s leadership of the BIA, it could hurt tribes such as the Ute, who have diversified their holdings to include wells in the Outer Continental Shelf under federal management.

On the other hand, the proposed Green New Deal would provide massive subsidies to wind and solar energy, both of which are in abundant supply on many reservations. According to a 2018 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, tribal lands have 5 percent of the nation’s solar energy potential and 9 percent of the wind energy potential. But whether these sources are tapped should be a decision left to the tribes.

Traditional Strengths

Native Americans are the nation’s poorest minority. Their poverty rates are as high as 25 percent and unemployment rates are as high as 69 percent. Between 2013 and 2017, median income for reservation Native Americans was $29,097 and for all Native Americans (including those living off reservations) was $40,315. This compares to approximately $66,943 for all Americans, $41,361 for African-Americans, and $51,450 for Hispanic Americans. To this add high rates of drug abuse, spousal abuse, and alcoholism.

Still, dangling carrots to the tribes in the form of grants from the federal government is not the solution to reservation poverty. As Bill Yellowtail, a former regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, put it, “Dependency has become the reality of our daily existence. Worst of all, generation by generation it becomes what sociologists term learned helplessness—an internalized sense of no personal possibility, transmitted hereditarily and reinforced by recurring circumstances of hopelessness.”

Secretary Haaland has the power to give tribes and their citizens more opportunities for self-determination. Her first challenge is to free tribes from dependency on the federal government. Virtually all public services—education, police protection, low-income housing, food subsidies, and infrastructure—are paid for through grants from the federal government. Hence, tribal governments, unlike cities, counties, and states, depend on grants rather than revenue to fund government services. If they are to become independent, vibrant economies, tribes will need revenue, not grants.

Haaland can take an important lesson from the record of Charles Curtis, vice president under Herbert Hoover and the first person of color to hold that office. Curtis, from Kansas, was one-eighth Kaw Indian. As a senator, Curtis supported federal boarding schools and introduced the Curtis Act of 1898, aimed at weakening tribal relations and encouraging assimilation into white society. In a recent study, tribal scholars Stephen Cornell and Joseph Kalt explored the roots of Indian economic development and found that culture is part of the glue that “informs and legitimizes conceptions of self, of social and political organization, of how the world works, and of how the individual and group appropriately work in the world.”

American Indians can rebuild their economies and culture by referring back to traditional indigenous economies that were built on concepts of ownership and rule of law, underpinned by cultures that rewarded entrepreneurship as well as stewardship. For example, when (not if) the Biden administration creates national monuments to protect Native American antiquities, as the Obama administration did, it could give management authority to tribes rather than DOI. In its co-management agreement with the National Park Service, the Navajo Nation has already demonstrated that it is “competent and capable” of managing Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, for example.

Haaland can help tribes wean American Indians from dependency and find sources of revenue—even if that revenue comes from fossil fuels. This will require a much more specific approach than the green mantra the secretary professes, proclaiming herself a fierce voice “for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”

“Bossing Indians around” is not a just approach, regardless of who takes it. Haaland is in a position to right the long-running injustices toward indigenous people by promoting tribal sovereignty and individual liberty. Chief Joseph asked for exactly this in 1879 when he said, “Let me be a free man—free to travel, free to stop, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teacher, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself.” Native Americans had these freedoms before European contact, and they thrived. Today Secretary Haaland is well-placed to free American Indians from racism and wardship.

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