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It is long past time for the Department of the Interior to be led by a Native American

by Shannon Holsey and Leonard Forsman
Monday, 26 October 2020 13:35 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Native American activists rally to call on President Barack Obama to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, in front of the White House in Washington, U.S. September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Indian tribes are the first Americans to feel the effects of climate change yet we are rarely represented in government

By Shannon Holsey, President of the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe, and Leonard Forsman, Chairman of the Suquamish Tribe

The United States plays an enormous role in setting climate, natural resource, and environmental policies that impact the entire planet.  Perhaps no federal agency has a greater share of that role than the Department of the Interior.

The Department of the Interior manages nearly one-fifth of the land in the United States, regulates oil and gas extraction across the country and off our coasts, manages the delivery of water for farmers and ranchers across the country, and is the home of the U.S. Geological Survey – which gathers and analyzes data related to climate change. 

Interior manages our National Parks, National Monuments, wildlife refuges, and extends protections to threatened and endangered species.  These multifaceted environmental, cultural, and natural resource responsibilities impact the entire planet.

The Department of the Interior’s mandate also includes the implementation of many federal laws and policies regarding Native people. Nearly one-quarter of the Department’s annual budget is dedicated to its responsibilities to manage government-to-government relations with 578 federally recognized Indian tribes and millions of their citizens.

The Department performs functions in every aspect of tribal affairs except health care – from education to law enforcement, social services, economic development, and natural resources. Yet, the Department of the Interior has never been led by a Native American and it is long past time for that to change.

Representation in government matters, and it is important that the people who live with the direct consequences of government decisions must be represented in the room where those decisions happen.

From melting permafrost in Alaska and rising sea levels in coastal tribal communities in Maine and the Pacific Northwest, to droughts and deadly wildfires across the West, Indian tribes have been the first Americans to feel the effects of climate change. We have been living with the consequences of federal climate and environmental policy for decades. Yet, we have rarely been represented at the table when federal officials have decided our fate.

Far too often, Indian Country’s voices are not heard within the Department in land management and environmental policy discussions. Indian country has so much to offer the entire Nation when it comes to collaborative resource management, climate policy, and environmental policy.

Traditional tribal forest management practices are now discussed broadly as a way to prevent catastrophic wildfires. Tribal agricultural practices show how to grow and harvest food in a sustainable way. Tribes have successfully managed ocean and freshwater fisheries for centuries, with principles that ensure habitat protection and sustainable commercial harvest.

As sovereign governments, Indian tribes are well-practiced in land management and environmental policy.

For centuries, Native American have been under a glass ceiling in our Federal Government – including at the Department of the Interior. In 2020, it is time to break through that ceiling.

There is no shortage of qualified Native Americans who are capable of doing this important job and bringing a new perspective to setting America’s climate and environmental policies.

We have Native American people serving in Congress, and at the highest levels of State government.  We’ve had Native Americans appointed as Ambassadors, and who have served in Assistant Secretary or Deputy Secretary positions in the Federal Government.

Rep. Deb Haaland is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, and presently serves as the Chairwoman of the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Lands, which has oversight authority of the Department of the Interior. Rep. Haaland is the type of candidate who would have a deep understanding of all of the responsibilities of the Secretary of the Interior from day one.  We are certain there are other Native Americans who are up to the task as well.

Given its unique responsibilities, it is disconcerting that the Department has never been led by a Native American.  The events of 2020 have once again highlighted the work we must do to uphold civil rights and work toward justice. Secretary Sally Jewell and Secretary Ken Salazar ensured that Native voices were included and heard at the table.

Now, it’s time for the table to be hosted by a Native Secretary.