Here are four things to know.
Interior is a critical agency for tribal governments
The Interior Department oversees about 500 million acres of public land and federal policies affecting the 574 federally recognized tribal governments, including three offices for tribal affairs: the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau for Trust Funds Administration.
Many of its other offices have overlapping authority on tribal land and on land where tribes have federally recognized rights to fish, hunt, gather and maintain cultural resources. These include the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
These offices have had a checkered relationship with tribes, contributing to tribal members’ mistrust of the federal government. Since the BIA was established in 1824 within the War Department, the agency’s policies have often undermined tribal governments and dismantled Indigenous cultures. The Bureau of Indian Education was responsible for forced assimilation efforts that many Native Americans view as cultural genocide. Today, the education agency supports 184 elementary and secondary schools, including 24 colleges and universities.
Native American political involvement rose during the past two election cycles
Political scientists’ research has found that the more a representative looks like you — which political scientists call “descriptive representation” — the more likely people like you will get involved in civic life and trust the government.
In 2020, the National Election Eve Survey conducted by Latino Decisions found that 60 percent of Native American voters joined a larger coalition of diverse voters that helped swing the election toward Biden. Only 35 percent of Native American respondents reported voting for former president Donald Trump.
The power of Native American voters in 2020 was particularly apparent in Arizona, where they helped the Democratic presidential candidate capture the state for the first time since 1996. Many Democratic activists say Native Americans could be a key group in helping to take more Senate seats; Native American electoral organizations such as Four Directions helped mobilize voters in two Senate runoff elections in Georgia
The increasing electoral power of Native American voters may have helped prompt Haaland’s nomination.
What Native American communities will be watching for
After centuries of mistreatment, Native Americans generally have low levels of trust in the federal government and U.S. elections. Haaland’s nomination could help change that, although the task is large. Native Americans will be paying close attention to whether Haaland can reverse federal policies they’ve opposed. This includes restoring and preserving sacred sites such as Bears Ears National Monument, Chaco Canyon and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and revisiting other land claims.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed vast inequalities that have long persisted in Native American communities. Lack of critical infrastructure, including plumbing, adequate housing and health care, have resulted in a Native American mortality rate twice as high as that of White Americans. Native leaders and citizens across the United States will want greater investment in infrastructure, health care, education and housing.
Keep an eye on how energy policy intersects with land management
Despite making up only 2 percent of the U.S. population, Native American tribes control about 20 percent of the nation’s oil, gas and coal reserves. And yet pursuing that development is highly controversial within Native American communities.
Many tribal leaders are concerned about how climate change could hurt their vulnerable land and communities. At Standing Rock and in other protest movements, activists and tribal leaders cited environmental racism as Native American land and resources remain a target for exploitation by extractive industries. Many Native Americans and tribal leaders note that land exploitation will produce little benefit for their communities, disrupt and diminish tribal lands, and destroy sacred sites.
Thus, Native American nations will be looking to the Interior Department and other federal agencies to work to define Native American lands’ well-being and right to control local development in their communities. Biden’s recent executive order to revoke the Keystone XL pipeline permit was celebrated by Native Americans and signals greater cooperation between the people and the government.
Although many Native American nations oppose resource exploitation, some tribes rely heavily on fossil fuel extraction for jobs and revenue. Since the 19th century, the Interior Department and other federal agencies facilitated fossil fuel extraction on tribal lands, often over tribal government objections, while blocking other economic opportunities. With oversight from Interior, extractive industries have contaminated tribal lands with lasting negative health effects on Native American communities.
Because of this troubled history with the federal government and the Interior Department in particular, Haaland’s nomination is a significant and historic moment for Native Americans. Having a Native American leader overseeing these policy discussions will probably result in increased collaboration among the federal government and the sovereign Indigenous nations, which will for the first time have one of their own at the table to lead those efforts.
Cheryl Ellenwood (Nez Percé) (@cherylofkamiah) is a PhD candidate at the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona; a data sovereignty doctoral scholar at the Native Nations Institute housed at the Udall Center for Public Policy; and a member of the Collaboratory for Indigenous Data Governance.
Laura Evans is an associate professor at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington.
Carmela Roybal (Ohkay Owingeh) (@carmelaroybal) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of New Mexico; a doctoral fellow at the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health Policy; and a senior research fellow at the American University of Sovereign Nations.
Gabriel R. Sanchez is a professor of political science; the founding Robert Wood Johnson Foundation endowed chair in health policy at the University of New Mexico; director of the UNM Center for Social Policy; a founding member of the UNM Native American Budget and Policy Institute; and a nonresident senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.