With the recent confirmation of Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior, the nation has its first Native American cabinet member.
The position has significant influence on Native American affairs, and tribal representatives in Michigan say they’re optimistic about what Biden administration’s policies and Haaland’s position mean for Native representation.
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, is a former U.S. representative from New Mexico and now runs the department with the most responsibility for Native American affairs, including relationships between the federal government and tribes. The department includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.
Michigan is home to 12 of the 574 tribes recognized federally, including the Bay Mills Indian Community, the Grand Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians of Michigan (Gun Lake), Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
Amber Morseau, the director of Northern Michigan University’s Center for Native American Studies, said some past Interior Department policies and practices have been abusive.
“It’s supposed to honor the nation’s trust and responsibilities and its commitments to Native American people, and to really help them prosper,” she said of the department.
“However, with former administrations, this has really been a conflict with the mission of the department by taking sponsorships and other incentives from different companies that profit off of marginalizing Native American territories,” Morseau said.
Haaland “at the helm creates a totally different dynamic than what we’re used to seeing from that office,” she said.
Morseau continued, “We’re already starting to create a more equitable environment for our people to become politicians and be at the table. We now have a seat at the table, and that’s what’s important.”
David Arroyo, who chairs the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, agreed, saying, “I’m confident that she’ll do a great job for all the citizens of our country, but I think she has, probably more so than anyone else, the understanding of our people.”
Morseau and Arroyo said inequality and climate protection are two areas where they expect Haaland to focus.
Arroyo said, “From an Indigenous standpoint, I hope that we are given equal footing and equal consideration and treatment, as is written in treaties and different policies. So I hope, moving forward, we can finally move the false and sometimes misleading narrative of how things really aren’t.”
On climate change, he said, “It’s scary to think that if we don’t have a planet to live on, then we don’t have much of a life. I hope we’re able to correct some things and make sure that the generations after us can enjoy what we currently do.”
Morseau singled out the Line 5 project, a controversial oil and gas pipeline operating under the Straits of Mackinac, which is a target of criticism from environmental groups, tribes and the Whitmer administration.
“There are serious environmental concerns that are happening in the state of Michigan, concerning the Straits of Mackinac and that are going to have a broader impact than just the water,” she said.
In the Great Lakes region, she said, “Anishinaabe folks live and breathe by the water that surrounds this state. And so with that in mind, I know that this is going to be a part of (Haaland’s) agenda.”
Jay Sam, the director of the Historic Preservation Department of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, said Line 5 “is a fairly large issue for the tribes, and hopefully there’ll be a more receptive chance to negotiate and consult with the federal government in reviewing some of the state policies.”
Sam said that he also wants a change in the overall framing of government-to-government relations between tribes and the federal government, including more of a partnership that exchanges information and consults on projects.