By: Tori Myers
Section I: Introduction
The Department of the Interior is responsible for the natural and cultural upkeep of this country. This has been done in different means such as collaborating with legislatures to make services such as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These two specific departments heavily interact with Native American communities and land, yet Native Americans have been historically underrepresented in these department positions. The lack of representation can be correlated to the inequitable treatment of Native Americans in the legal system along with the low amounts of political participation and education in some Native communities. While this is a problem that stems from the historic injustice done to tribes, the modern age has shown that there is hope and an optimistic turn in representation for Native Americans within this country with the announcement of tribal members running and being appointed to office.
Section II: History with Representation
The difficult past of representation stems back to the fact that up until 1924, Native Americans were not considered citizens of the United States. This is especially interesting to note considering the large participation Native Americans contributed in both WWI and the Civil War. The Indian Citizenship Act was a small step towards true freedom for Native Americans, but the act only gave citizenship to those born in the US and it was ultimately up to the individual states to grant voting rights. These rights came decades after citizenship was announced, yet Native Americans had the highest participation rate per capita for WWII without being recognized legally. This was especially devastating for war veterans that returned without receiving the same benefits and recognition that other veterans experienced. Coming back to the US without having the same resources or opportunities forced Native American veterans to live in conditions that were unfit, such as homes that were near southwestern sites that were used for bomb testing and resource extraction. This was all being done before and around the 1960s when all US states finally allowed voting rights to Native Americans. (1)
Section III: Current Native Americans in Office
In 2020, exciting and refreshing news was announced when Deb Haaland of the Pueblo tribe was appointed Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary. This department has been around for nearly 200 years, yet no Native American had yet held this position. The DOI is responsible for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, so to have a Native American in the office is a huge step in the right direction. Haaland’s focuses are environmental change and action, which is especially important for this department. (2) Within this department is the National Park Service which is also focusing its efforts on new environmental strategies to keep the damaging effects of climate change to a minimum in the parks. These parks are often part of or close to Native American reservations. With this in mind, the announcement of Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes as the new Director of the National Park Service System means that new viewpoints and experiences will be taken into account while managing these more than 85 million acres. (3)
Section IV: Combating Climate Change
These new perspectives will become increasingly important when evaluating the causes and effects of climate change and how it should best be solved. Deep debates have been controlling the political arena whenever it comes to climate change and protecting our land. Instances of this can be seen in the difficulty of modernizing the environmental laws that are currently in place. Most of these laws were established in the era after the first Earth Day 1970, but have sadly been neglected and ignored in current administrations. These laws include the Clean Air Act of 1970 which has not been amended since 1990, and the National Environmental Policy Act passed in 1970 that has not been amended since 1982. (4) Without adapting to the current state of our climate, these laws do not do much good and are often forgotten. This is due to the loose enforcement of these laws and the lack of guidance by the federal government on how to regulate these laws. The polarization of environmental issues is to blame when it comes down to why we are not seeing significant change. These issues were considered important for both political parties in the 1960s and 1970s. This is why so many environmental policies were able to be passed, even with different political affiliations in the administrations. Such unity for any type of issue would not be seen today, unfortunately. But, hope is on the horizon with new voices in office. Secretary Haaland has recently created two new task forces in the past year to refocus the department on the issues of climate change as well as promote transparency to citizens. Along with this, she also revoked previous orders that did not align with the department’s mission to “public health; conserve land, water, and wildlife; and elevate science.” (5) In later February, Secretary Haaland discussed the “allocation of $1.7 billion of Infrastructure Law funding this year to fulfill settlements of Indian water rights.” This law works to fix the problems of environmental justice in Native communities and their water rights. (6) While these few works seem minimal, they are actually reviving the commitment the DOI has to the country while also allowing citizens to become actively engaged when it comes to environmental decision-making. These exciting changes may not be immediately visible to the public, but laying down the foundation for environmental change along with Native American representation in legal and governmental fields is essential for progress in our country and world.
- Today in History – June 2, Library of Congress (Jun. 2, 2021), https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/june-02/
- U.S. SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR Secretary Deb Haaland, U.S. Department of Interior, https://www.doi.gov/secretary-deb-haaland.
- Charles F. Sams III Sworn In as National Park Service Director, NPS (Dec. 16, 2021), https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1207/director-chuck-sams-sworn-in.htm.
- WALTER ROSENBAUM, ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS AND POLICY 14, (11th ed. 2014).
- Secretary Haaland Establishes Climate Task Force, Strengthens Scientific Integrity, U.S. Department of Interior (Apr. 16, 2021), https://www.doi.gov/news/secretary-haaland-establishes-climate-task-force-strengthens-scientific-integrity.
- In Arizona Visit, Secretary Haaland Highlights Interior’s Commitment to Indian Country, Investments in Water and Drought Resilience, U.S. Department of Interior (Feb. 22, 2022), https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/arizona-visit-secretary-haaland-highlights-interiors-commitment-indian-country.