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Appointment of a Native American as Interior Secretary is a step in accepting America’s colonial past

It has become commonplace to talk of slavery as America’s original sin. But this narrative elides the story of the US as a settler colony — native Americans were forcibly removed before white settlers could use slave labour to cultivate those lands.

Written by Sanjib Baruah |
Updated: December 28, 2020 9:21:31 am
During the racial reckoning that has been taking place in the US over the past year, Black Lives Matter activists have drawn attention to the mistreatment of all ‘communities of colour’.(Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

To say that Native American politician Debra Anne Haaland’s appointment as Secretary of the Interior of the US would be historic is an understatement. If confirmed by the Senate, Haaland will take office in early 2021 as the first Native American head of the sprawling government department that manages the US government’s relations with indigenous communities and oversees the country’s national parks and millions of acres of public lands, most of which were once controlled by Native Americans.

In urging Biden to choose Haaland for the position, prominent environmental and climate activist Bill McKibben said, “It would be a remarkable plot twist in the American story for an indigenous person to run interior — a gesture can’t repair much of the damage that’s been done, but it can serve as a constant reminder of the debt still to be repaid.”

The Department of Interior includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Established in 1824, the Bureau was housed originally in the Department of War before it was moved to the newly created Department of the Interior in 1849. It was located in the Department of War since the subjugation of indigenous communities and their forced relocation was official policy.

“As federal policy has changed from notions of subjugating and assimilating American Indians,” says the bureau’s official website, so has its mission. “Its role now is as a partner with tribes to help them achieve their goals for self-determination”.

It may seem remarkable to readers in India that the term “Indian”, a legacy of Christopher Columbus’s 528-year-old mistake, is still a legal category in the US. Fortunately, terms such as Native or Native American, indigenous communities, Native Nation or First Nations People now enjoy wide acceptance as synonyms.

In the colonial period in North America, the British entered into treaties with Native American nations as they did with foreign countries. The practice continued till after the founding of the United States in 1776. However, their legal and political status suffered a demotion; they became “domestic dependent nations”, to use Chief Justice John Marshall’s early 19th century re-formulation. In the treaties they signed, Native Americans ceded millions of acres of land to the US, but the treaties did not absorb them into the American body politic. Native Americans were restricted to their reservations. Yet, they could govern themselves. Even groups that did not sign treaties could claim to possess inherent sovereignty.

Native Americans didn’t all cheer when the US Congress in 1924 declared that those born in the country will be American citizens. Clinton Rickard, the chief of the Tuscarora people (who now live in the US state of New York and Canada’s Ontario province), said: “By its provisions all Indians were automatically made United States citizens whether they wanted to be or not. This was a violation of our sovereignty. Our citizenship was in our own nations . . . We wished to remain treaty Indians and reserve our ancient rights. There was no great rush among my people to go out and vote in the white man’s elections.”

Not all Native Americans took this view. But many still remain ambivalent about citizenship. “Democracy is Indigenous” is the slogan used by an advocacy organization working to register indigenous voters in the last election seeking to appeal to the pride that many feel about historical institutions such as the Iroquois Confederacy and its consensus-based mechanisms of governance.

Born to a Native American mother and a Norwegian-American father, Haaland is an enrolled citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna. Pueblo — the Spanish word for village — is the commonly used term for indigenous communities in New Mexico reflecting the state’s Spanish colonial heritage. Haaland often describes herself as a 35th generation New Mexican.

Haaland first came to national attention in 2018 when she was elected to the House of Representatives. She was one of the two Native American women elected to the Congress for the first time in US history. Now she will be the first-ever indigenous person to hold a Cabinet-level position.

At the Democratic National Convention last August, Haaland spoke powerfully against President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. “If anyone can say ‘go back’”, she said, “it’s Native Americans. My Pueblo ancestors, despite being targeted at every juncture — despite facing famine and drought — still inhabit this country today. But indigenous people aren’t asking anyone to go back to where they came from.”

She has been a champion of Native American rights and environmental causes. “The sad fact is that we have a President,” she said earlier this year, “who is intent on selling off our public lands to his friends for fracking and drilling.” Oil and gas development in federal public lands provides livelihood to many Americans and a major source of revenue for a number of states. Haaland’s position on oil and gas drilling on public lands is likely to come under scrutiny during her confirmation hearings and if she is confirmed, during her tenure as Interior Secretary.

During the racial reckoning that has been taking place in the US over the past year, Black Lives Matter activists have drawn attention to the mistreatment of all “communities of colour”. But the protests have also dramatised the uniqueness of the challenges facing Native Americans. Unlike all other exclusions in American society, at the core of America’s problems with indigenous communities lies the question of land — a lot of which falls within the mandate of the Department of Interior. It has become commonplace to talk of slavery as America’s original sin. But this narrative elides the story of the US as a settler colony — native Americans were forcibly removed before white settlers could use slave labour to cultivate those lands.

Biden has promised a Cabinet that “looks like America”. Perhaps a Native American Secretary of the Interior will bring America a step closer to recognising its settler colonial past and present. If that happens, Haaland’s appointment will prove historic above and beyond its intended short-term political goal.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 28, 2020, under the title “An American debt”.  Baruah is professor of political studies at Bard College, New York

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