By Lynda V. Mapes
March 6, 2021
There’s a saying in Indian Country: either you are at the table, or you are on the menu.
Appointments by the Biden administration now in the works would put American Indian and Alaska Native people very much at the table, including posts where Native people have never before served, with enormous influence over lands and waters and environmental policy across the U.S.
The appointments, some already made and others under consideration, are a redemptive moment for federal agencies that in the past terminated the federal relationship with tribes, destroyed tribal fisheries and worked hard to eliminate tribal cultures.
The biggest appointment, still to be confirmed by Congress, is that of U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, of New Mexico and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, to serve as secretary of the Department of the Interior. Other appointments include Robert Anderson, who would be one of Haaland’s top lawyers, and Jaime Pinkham, a Nez Perce tribal member, to a top post at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
David Z. Bean, council member for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, an important donor in federal and state elections, called the appointments “both historic and exciting. It is going to change the conversation, and right the wrong of so many wrongs through the years.”
While they run their own governments and nations, tribes care deeply about the partners they work with at every level of government.
That is because the exercise of tribal sovereignty and even the most fundamental aspects of protecting and continuing their way of life depend on productive government-to-government relationships.
Haaland’s potential confirmation holds significant promise, Bean said.
“With her historic and eventual confirmation, she will be the first Native American to head an agency that had one time charged itself with the destruction of our people,” Bean said.
During the so-called Termination Era from 1953 to 1969, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under the Department of Interior, oversaw the termination of federal relations with more than 100 tribal governments across the country, and the relocation of tribal members from their communities and reservations to live in cities, including Seattle.
Earlier, beginning in the 1870s, Indian children were also taken from their families and sent to boarding schools whose mission under U.S. federal policy was to destroy their tribal culture. The legacy of trauma inflicted by the schools, some of which operated under what would become known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, continues today.
Indian leaders who grew up hearing their parents’ and elders’ stories honor what their elders survived, and the changes underway today.
“My dad and so many elders literally went through blood, sweat and tears to fight for who we are,” said Willie Frank Jr. III, a Nisqually tribal council member. He is the son of Billy Frank Jr., a nationally celebrated treaty rights activist jailed dozens of times for his defense of tribal treaty fishing rights.
A statue of his father, who died in 2014, is now under consideration by state lawmakers to replace missionary Marcus Whitman as one of two statues representing Washington state in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.
Meanwhile, other native leaders around the region also are being tapped for important appointments.
Anderson would be one of Haaland’s top lawyers if she is confirmed. He has been appointed principal deputy solicitor at the Department of Interior.
He is enrolled in the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and taught at the University of Washington School of Law and directed its Native American Law Center for the past 20 years. He also for more than a decade has been a visiting professor at the Harvard Law School.
Pinkham, a Nez Perce tribal member and treaty fishing rights champion as executive director of the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, has been invited by the Biden Administration to serve a primary deputy secretary for civil works at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.