THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to – sorry, good morning and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland on the Biden-Harris Administration’s Commitment to Indigenous Communities. My name is Jen McAndrew, and I am today’s moderator.
Secretary Haaland made history when she became the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary. She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican. More background on her distinguished record of public service is available in the bio we have already provided.
In advance of UN International Day of the World’s Indigenous People observed August 9th, we are delighted to have Secretary Haaland here today to brief the foreign press on the central role the Department of the Interior plays in how the United States stewards its public lands, pursues environmental justice, and honors the United States’ nation-to-nation relationship with tribes.
And now for the ground rules: This briefing is on the record. We will post the video and transcript of this briefing later today on our website. Secretary Haaland will make an opening statement and then we will go to Q&A. We have a limited time today, so we apologize in advance if we’re not able to take all of the questions.
And now Secretary Haaland, over to you.
SECRETARY HAALAND: Thank you so much, Jen. Appreciate your introduction. (In Keresan.)
Greetings to you all. My name is Deb Haaland. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today to share some information about the Department of the Interior’s work with indigenous communities from the perspective of the first Native American Cabinet secretary in the United States.
I’m delivering these remarks from the ancestorial homelands of the Anacostan and Piscataway people. It’s important to me to make land acknowledgments, whether here in D.C. or when I’m traveling. I believe that acknowledging the homelands on which we convene is essential to respect the peoples who live here and the history of their land.
I thank the Washington Foreign Press Center for facilitating this discussion and each of you for your time and attention to understanding America’s relationship and commitments to Native American, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian communities.
Today, I’d like to speak to you about the work we do here at Interior, how the Biden-Harris administration is working to strengthen tribal sovereignty and invest in indigenous communities, and some priorities that we are undertaking to address the legacy of intergenerational trauma, which impacts Native American, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian people.
I know that some of these issues are new for some of you and that each country has different relationships with its indigenous peoples. So I’ll just start with the basics. In the United States there are 574 federally recognized Indian tribes. Those tribes are all sovereign nations. In exchange for millions of acres of land, the United States signed treaties, passed laws, and drafted executive orders with tribes that outline a federal trust responsibility.
The federal trust responsibility is a legally enforceable obligation on the part of the United States to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources. It also reflects a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law with respect to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages.
The Department of the Interior has mission areas in common with a number of ministries that exist in other countries, including the ministries of environment, climate, natural resources, mining, energy, water, cultural heritage, indigenous affairs, science, and technology. Our mission, in spite of our name, also has an international impact as the water and resources we manage, the people we serve, and the species we protect all extend beyond our borders.
As Secretary of the Interior, I also oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is tasked with maintaining government-to-government relationships with Indian tribes and facilitating support for tribal people and tribal governments. Historically, the Department of the Interior has also been responsible for the forced relocation, assimilation, and environmental injustice that was inflicted on indigenous people, which has had lasting impacts that can still be felt today.
Starting with that as a base and with a backdrop of racial reckoning that our country is now experiencing, it’s not a surprise that the injustices of the past are coming to light, which I will discuss with you today. It’s not an understatement to say that we have our work cut out for us at the Interior Department. But I believe we’re in the beginning of a new era, an era in which our indigenous knowledge is valued and respected, in which indigenous leadership has a seat at the table to make decisions about communities, in which we have an opportunity to rise above the challenges our people face and build a brighter future for our children, our grandchildren, and future generations.
Nowhere is this more important than in our work to address the climate crisis. Humanity is facing one of the biggest challenges of our time. With the indigenous knowledge, our world can usher in a new era in which we restore balance to our natural world to meet this moment and move our planet toward a more sustainable future. Indigenous ancestors lived sustainably and survived famine and drought with the understanding that future generations would rely on their hard work and sacrifice in moments like these. There are indigenous groups in and around the world that have witnessed differences in their surroundings and detected climate change because they are in tune with their environment. It’s by valuing and using indigenous knowledge that we can move forward and confront climate threats without leaving anyone behind.
The United States has a President who recognizes the value of our tradition of stewardship in the fight for our planet’s future. At Interior, we’re committed to making bold investments that will address the climate crisis, create good paying jobs, and advance environmental justice. That includes empowering tribes to harness the potential of clean energy.
President Biden has been clear that respect for tribal sovereignty and self-governance is a cornerstone of his administration’s policy. He has appointed indigenous people at the highest levels of government. He has also restored the White House Council on Native American Affairs, which, for the first time in history, includes a committee on international indigenous issues. As the chair of the White House council, I use all my experiences as an organizer, a tribal administrator, a member of Congress, to inform my leadership and collaborate with every federal agency for the benefit of indigenous people across the country. President Biden knows that a strong nation-to-nation relationship depends on meaningful dialogue and robust consultation with every federal agency, not just Interior. When we engage tribal nations, we all benefit.
This new era comes on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, a pandemic that, as you know, took a heartbreaking toll on indigenous communities everywhere. The disproportional impact of COVID-19 on American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States was substantial. The pandemic put a spotlight on the disparities that have and continue to exist in communities across America, including a lack of basic resources like running water, adequate health care, and functional broadband, which were exacerbated when indigenous communities shut down. But tribal governments stepped up to keep their communities safe and healthy. In fact, they administered vaccines at higher success rates than other communities of the country because they use traditional methods of communication and organization.
The Biden-Harris administration is moving this new era ahead with historic investments in Indian Country. Most recently, President Biden’s American Rescue Plan provided relief for families, local, state, and tribal governments. The historic $31.2 billion for tribal communities was the largest single investment the United States has ever made in Indian Country. Interior conducted robust nation-to-nation consultations to implement the American Rescue Plan so that tribal governments had a say in how those funds were distributed. We’re now looking ahead to the President’s budget proposal, which prioritized a historic $30.6 billion for tribes. This includes an additional $58 million for public safety and justice to address issues like the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis.
I know that this is important in many of your countries. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis is deeply personal to me. I’m a mother, a sister, a daughter, and an auntie, and I understand the devastation that comes to many families in this space. Everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities, but the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis is one that indigenous communities have faced since the dawn of colonization. That’s why as one of my first acts as secretary I created the Missing & Murdered Unit at Interior to investigate unsolved cases of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, so we can draw resources and coordinate across the government. For too long this issue has been swept under the rug by our government with a lack of urgency, attention, and funding. I want to make sure that I do everything that I can to help resolve this issue that has gone unaddressed throughout history.
We’re also working to implement the Not Invisible Act, which was a bill that I introduced as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and it was signed into law earlier this year. I now have the honor to see it through. The Not Invisible Act aims to increase inter-governmental coordination to identify and combat violent crime against Indians within Indian lands. We have moved on implementing the Not Invisible Act by establishing a joint commission led by us and the Department of Justice to reduce violent crime against American Indians and Alaska Natives. There will be more to come on that front in the months to come.
Another issue that is personal to me is the tragic history of the U.S. Government’s boarding school policies. In recent months, there have been heartbreaking stories about hundreds of indigenous children found in a number of mass graves at boarding school locations in Canada. These stories truly affected me. I couldn’t help but think of their families. Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose because forced assimilation policies ended their lives too soon. I thought of my own child who carries this generational trauma with them. I thought of my grandmother who told me about the pain and loneliness she endured when the trains took her away from her family to boarding school in New Mexico. I wept with the indigenous members of our team here at the Interior.
Our communities are still mourning these losses. The federal policies that attempted to wipe out native identity, language, and culture continue to manifest in the pain our communities face, including longstanding intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance of indigenous people, premature deaths, mental health disorders, and substance abuse. But now, for the first time, this country has a cabinet secretary who is indigenous. I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policy carried out by the same department that I now lead. To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past no matter how hard it will be.
For more than a century, the Interior Department was responsible for operating the Indian boarding schools across the United States and its territories. We are uniquely positioned to assist in the effort to recover the dark history of these institutions that have haunted our families for too long. At no time in history have the records or documentation of this policy been compiled or analyzed to determine the full scope of its reaches and effects. I therefore launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to identify past boarding school facilities and sites, the locations of known and possible burial sites at or near those school facilities, and the identities and tribal affiliations of the tens of thousands of children who were taken to those places. We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools. The process will be long, difficult, and painful for many in our communities, but it’s only by acknowledging the past that we can work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.
So as I said, we have quite a path ahead. I don’t see it as my role to be the voice for all indigenous people, but rather, to amplify their voices so that American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities have a seat at the table to speak for themselves. I think all of you who have taken the time to cover these issues that are important to the indigenous peoples in your countries, they’re helping to tell the stories of all of our people. But we need more, of course. We need more stories that center the voices and experience of indigenous peoples, and we need more indigenous reporters who can speak from their own perspectives.
Thank you so much again, and now I’ll turn it back to Jen for the questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Secretary Haaland. We’ll now begin the Q&A, and I’d first like to call on Ed Keenan from the Toronto Star.
QUESTION: Hi. So do I need to do something to unmute myself?
MODERATOR: We can hear you. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. Secretary Haaland, thank you so much for doing this, first off. You spoke about how the news about the unmarked graves at residential schools in Canada sort of affected you personally and led to some more action to reflect on that in the United States. If you’re willing or able to talk about how your personal experience sort of drove that reaction, I’d love to hear it.
And also, I wonder to what extent does Canada’s experience of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Missing and Murdered women’s inquiry, offer lessons for various of these initiatives that you’ve just talked about, both of how to do things, how not to do them, what pitfalls there are, what can be achieved.
SECRETARY HAALAND: Thank you so much for those questions. I’ll try to answer all of them. First of all, when I – in thinking about this boarding school issue, I used to spend a lot of time with my grandmother when I was in college. I was an undergraduate. I got my degree in English, and so – professional writing, in fact – and so I would spend the weekends with her and interview her on any number of topics so that I would have – for my writing assignments.
And we came to that topic of the Indian boarding schools one weekend and it was just extremely painful to hear her talk about how the priests went around the village knocking on doors and essentially gathering up children to put them on a train. Her father was only able to visit her twice in the five years she was gone from her village, and that’s because he only had a horse and wagon as a mode of transportation. And she cried when she remembered how lonely it was without her family there, and I just – I mean, those were – I am grateful and I’m very fortunate that she survived that, because a lot of children clearly did not. And so it’s just important that those stories are told. It’s important that we come face to face with that history because it’s all of our history. It’s American history; it’s not just Native American history.
When I think about the ideas of Missing and Murdered Native – or Indigenous Peoples and how that issue has not been front and center for a very long time – I mean, this issue started 500 years ago in this country when the Europeans first came to this continent. And for too long it’s been ignored, and I believe very strongly that the tribal consultation policies of President Biden – he has committed to ensuring that tribes have a voice in all of these issues. That is actually the most important thing, is that we are giving tribes an opportunity to speak about this. We want them to tell us how – what do you want to see; how can we accomplish this; we want to move forward, but not without you.
So tribes historically haven’t always had a say in any issues that the Interior Department manages or moves forward, but today, they absolutely do. And when I speak about this being a new era, it truly is because at no time in history have the voices of tribal nations been so strong and paid attention to. And I hope that answers your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Secretary. We now go to Sumayya Tobah from CBC Canada. Sumayya, do we have you?
QUESTION: Oh, there I am. So sorry about that. Thank you so much, Secretary Haaland. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. This year has been extremely painful for Canada and the reminder of the impact of the residential schools on our communities, but as my colleague from the Toronto Star said, I’m just curious, what does reconciliation kind of look like from this point on? And is there a way for our two countries to work together?
SECRETARY HAALAND: Thank you for the question, and I know the word “reconciliation” comes up quite a few times in any conversations about our – the past history of indigenous people and of black Americans here in our country. And the difference I think here in the United States between any other group of people is that we have – as I mentioned in my remarks, there is a trust obligation between the United States and tribal nations. We’re a government-to-government – it’s a government-to-government relationship between the United States and tribes in exchange for all the land that the United States has gotten. It’s signed treaties, executive orders, acts of Congress to essentially formalize that relationship.
And so we really – indigenous people in the United States, they – if the United States would live up to its trusted treaty obligations, that’s exactly what we need. And so I think that that is a big difference, and as I mentioned in my remarks, it’s a legal obligation. The United States is bound to come to the table with solutions and with funding and with all of those things for tribal nations, and so if we would live up to that trust responsibility, that in and of itself would mean the world to tribal nations.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now go to Peter Jones, ABC Australia. You can now unmute yourself, turn on your camera.
QUESTION: Hi, Secretary Haaland. Thanks for taking my question and for doing this. I was wondering if I could follow up about what my colleague mentioned as well about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. And I was wondering if you had any – yeah, best practices that you’ve learned, or have you seen any results since you launched the Missing and Murdered unit earlier this year or since Operation Lady Justice was launched in 2019? Thank you.
SECRETARY HAALAND: Thank you so much for the question. And, of course – of course, if we were able to ensure that tribal nations had the funding – have the resources that they need. You know, when I think about – let’s take broadband internet for an example. Sometimes I think – there are still tribal governments who are working off dial-up. It’s exceedingly difficult for tribes to not be able to connect with other law enforcement agencies, to sign MOUs, to be in concert with state, local, other tribal government, federal – the federal law enforcement systems when they can’t even have reliable internet.
So when I think about Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, it brings up a whole slew of other issues that we need to work on, right? We need to make sure that folks have reliable cell phone service. If I were standing in the middle of any large tribal nation in this country and somebody were attacking me and I tried to pull my cell phone out to call the police, it would be unlikely that I could even get cell service. Likewise, if you call a police – if you called 911 and asked for a police or an officer to come out and assist you, it might take them an hour and a half because of the size of the geography.
So we – there’s a lot of issues that we need to attend to, that we need to push forward in order to really make that big of a difference. And so those are things that we’re talking about. Those are things that we’re moving forward with. The Not Invisible Act to create a condition of a broad range of folks who can tell us: these are the issues and this is what we need to do – it’s that input that’s going to help us to move a good plan and a plan that will make a difference forward. And so we’ll keep working at that.
And the Missing and Murdered unit – I will say, one of the main priorities of the Missing and Murdered unit is to solve the unsolved cases. There are still so many families in this country who have had their loved ones missing and have no idea whether they’re still alive or not. And so that is – giving families peace of mind, that’s absolutely a priority of ours, but certainly reaching out to find the solutions to all of the other problems, all of the other issues that will make the Missing and Murdered unit better, is something that we’ll continue to work on.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’re coming to the end of our time. So the final question will go to Rozina Sabur, Daily Telegraph UK. Rozina, over to you.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for your time, Secretary Haaland. I wanted to talk about your kind of role in terms of environmental issues. So just looking at that, the UK, as you know, is hosting COP26 in less than a hundred days, and global leaders have framed it as a big opportunity to forge new climate goals. But I think it’s fair to say that progress towards targets set in the Paris Agreement in 2015 have been underwhelming so far. So what should the U.S., the UK, and other countries involved in COP26 be doing right now to show their commitment to tackling climate change?
SECRETARY HAALAND: Well, certainly – yes, certainly listening to indigenous communities is absolutely one way to make a list of the things that we need to do. When I think about a lot of native communities in – tribal nations here in this country, who are the most vulnerable to climate change – there are communities in Alaska, for example, Alaska Native villages that will be underwater – and they know that – in five years. We need to listen to those folks, and we need to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to assist them for any adaptation measures.
But look, this is the bottom line: We need to cut carbon emissions out of our atmosphere. And how do we do that? It is moving forward with clean energy. It’s ensuring that tribal nations have opportunities to have the funding they need to ensure that they can take part in that future for their communities. Here in the United States – and I know there’s also a global initiative – we call it the America the Beautiful Initiative. That is to conserve 30 percent of our land in waters by 2030. Conserving those lands and waters is one of the best ways to ensure that we are taking those lands and moving them into a space where they will be free of carbon emissions. And that’s one of the sure ways I am – here at the Department of the Interior, the America the Beautiful Initiative is a priority of ours. And I know that that is something that we could all do.
MODERATOR: And with that, we have come to the end of our time today. On behalf of the U.S. Department of State and Washington Foreign Press Center, I’d like to thank Secretary Haaland for briefing the foreign press today. Thank you and good morning to everyone.
SECRETARY HAALAND: Thank you.