The upcoming developments in the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, along with Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, recently paid a visit to the ancestral lands of the White Mountain Apache nation in what is now Arizona. During their visit, they had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rich culture and language of the Apache people, which predates the establishment of the United States and the government they currently serve.

“To consider that just a century ago, the very government agency that the secretary and I currently oversee was causing harm and inflicting trauma on children for engaging in the same practices that we are here to applaud,” Newland expressed to ICT. “It is a complex situation, but it is truly gratifying to see that we have reached a point where a Cabinet secretary, representing the president, can sit there and join in celebrating these young Native children as they proudly embrace their language, attire, songs, dances, and traditional cuisine. It is truly inspiring.”

One hundred years ago, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had a stark contrast in 1824. Federal Indian policy at that time was centered around war, bloodshed, and death. It is interesting to note that the bureau was initially established within the War Department, before being permanently rooted in the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1849.

Newland emphasized a concept that has been repeatedly taught to him: a tree grows from its roots in the soil where it is planted.

The bureau is approaching its second centennial on March 11. Although its history is marked by a violent legacy and repugnant policies, it has evolved over time. The branches of the bureau have expanded beyond its initial roots, and progress, albeit gradual, has been made. Looking ahead to the next hundred years, tribal leaders and advocates envision a future with numerous possibilities. They hope for the establishment of a U.S. Department of Native American Affairs, significant reforms in grant funding to alleviate the burden on tribal governments, and the strengthening of tribal sovereignty beyond current expectations.

The bureau’s website states that its mission is to improve the quality of life, foster economic opportunity, and safeguard the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes, and Alaska Natives. It operates through 12 regional offices and 83 local agencies, serving 574 federally-recognized tribes. Since 1977, the bureau has been under the leadership of an Indigenous person.

BIA history

Newland, the current overseer of the bureau, Bay Mills Indian Community, is steadfast in his commitment to acknowledging and honoring the historical context surrounding his role.

“I believe it is crucial to acknowledge,” Newland emphasized, “so that we can avoid perpetuating the issues that were originally present when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established, in the work we carry out presently.”

In 1834, a significant shift occurred as Native Americans began to receive preferential hiring. However, even as late as the 1940s, White non-Native employees in the Muscogee office in Oklahoma referred to themselves as neutral and objective towards Native employees. They believed that Natives were not suitable for working at the bureau due to their perceived bias towards tribal nations and hostility towards the federal government. It is worth noting that during this period, up to 20 percent of the employees at this regional office were Native American.

In 2010, the majority of employees in the bureau were Native American, comprising 95 percent of the workforce.

According to Newland, it is common sense to have individuals in government who possess an inherent understanding of the issues they are trying to tackle.

Haaland, a former tribal administrator, has a deep connection to her roots in New Mexico. Growing up, she actively participated in tribal ceremonies and was engaged in various activities within her pueblo. Similarly, Newland, residing on his “rez” in Michigan, has a strong affinity for his tribal community. Having grown up in tribal housing, he later assumed leadership roles within his nation.

“I don’t require a briefing memo,” Newland asserted confidently. “The secretary doesn’t either. By skipping that step, we can dive right into our tasks, enabling us to accomplish more within the given timeframe.”

Nixon administration

In the mid-20th century, a significant transition took place, marking the end of the termination era and giving rise to self-determination and tribal sovereignty. This transformative shift occurred during the Nixon administration, and it is a speech that Paul Moorehead, former chief counsel and staff director to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, revisits periodically, reflecting on its impact.

“I occasionally read the policy, just for fun,” Moorehead, a Native American law attorney, shared.

In a special message to Congress, Nixon outlines his plans to put an end to forced termination and revamp Native American-specific agencies to ensure the fulfillment of treaty obligations. The relationship between the federal government and tribal nations is one of nation-to-nation, as affirmed by the U.S. Constitution, acts of Congress, and various legal precedents. It is important to note that tribal nations are not a racial classification, but rather sovereign political entities with treaties that must be upheld by law. These treaty rights were fully compensated through the cession of lands.

In his special address in 1970, Nixon proclaimed, “The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”

Larry Wright, executive director for the National Congress of American Indians, humorously points out the irony that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) falls under the Department of Interior, which is responsible for managing land, trees, rocks, and water, while also overseeing Native Americans.

The concept of establishing a U.S. Department of Native American Affairs, previously known as Indian Affairs, has been a topic of discussion among Native American communities for many years. Prominent figures in Indian Country, such as Vine Deloria Jr. and LaDonna Harris, have engaged in debates regarding the advantages and disadvantages of this idea.

Shannon O’Loughlin, the CEO of the Association on American Indian Affairs, suggests that a crucial step in enhancing the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is to remove it from the Department of the Interior. O’Loughlin believes that Indian affairs should be treated as a distinct entity within the government instead of being overshadowed by a department primarily focused on land and land management. To achieve this, she proposes the creation of a separate division dedicated to Indian Affairs, along with the appointment of a cabinet leader specifically responsible for overseeing these matters.

The bureau offers a unique advantage within the federal government: its permanency. Unlike a new department, which would require reauthorization every seven years, the bureau’s established presence ensures its continuity. This stability has been a cause for skepticism in the past, particularly during the termination era.

Today, the landscape has changed for tribes who now have the support of influential law firms, lobbying groups, and diligent tribal leaders. While challenges to tribal sovereignty persist, tribal nations persist in their efforts to protect and expand their influence.

According to Moorehead, it is highly unlikely for any negative proposals to reach the president of the United States and be signed, given the capabilities and knowledge that tribes possess within their own organizations and through the hiring of experts. He believes that it would be nearly impossible to push through such ideas, which is a positive development as it allows for a more focused approach on matters of importance to the people and the discussions at hand.

Having a dedicated department and cabinet seat may not solve all the problems, but it would certainly serve as a crucial step towards initiating change.

Wright, a member of the Ponca tribe, believes that it would be ideal for Native Americans to have their own agency. This would enable direct communication with the White House and Congress, ensuring that tribes are not forgotten and have a seat at the table. While it may not be the ultimate solution, Wright emphasizes the importance of tribal representation in decision-making processes.

Reform?

Other solutions include reforming the bureau’s grant funding process and expanding tribes’ ability to manage their own affairs.

According to Wright, tribes often face challenges when it comes to obtaining grant funds due to the requirement of providing a match. Additionally, the competitive nature of grant funding for Indian Country can create a divide among tribes. While some tribes have the resources and successful programs to meet these requirements, others may lack the internal capacity to do so, resulting in missed opportunities and disadvantages for certain tribes.

Tribal historic preservation offices, just like state historic preservation offices, face similar challenges. They are compelled to vie for funding alongside other Indigenous nations. Additionally, they are bound by specific obligations and duties imposed by the federal government.

According to O’Loughlin, a member of the Choctaw tribe, the funding provided to tribal offices should be in the form of regular grants that can be used as needed. She believes that it is important to eliminate any forced directives from the federal government that dictate how tribes should establish certain processes.

Grant funding often imposes a paternalistic approach that restricts tribes to program structures that may not effectively address the specific needs of their nation.

Moorehead emphasized the importance of tribes managing their own programs, stating that the results are significantly better for the people. He believes that this should be the guiding principle when considering the role of the BIA.

The U.S. Department of Interior in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)

Increasing tribal sovereignty is a crucial step towards empowering nations to effectively manage their lands and resources, a practice they have been engaged in for centuries. This shift is gradually taking place through initiatives like the 638 programs, the HEARTH Act, and the expansion of co-management opportunities for public lands.

“They may be small steps, but they are truly groundbreaking when you consider the fact that a tribe is now capable of creating, overseeing, and negotiating surface leases with external entities, such as a cattle company or a housing company,” Moorehead expressed. “The best part is that they no longer have to concern themselves with the opinions or decisions of an Interior Department official. It’s definitely a position of strength.”

The bureau, similar to other federal Indian agencies, faces a shortage of funding, which poses difficulties in fulfilling its responsibilities.

According to Newland, Indian Affairs within the federal government often mirrors the challenges faced by Indian Country. He highlighted the perennial resource constraints as a key issue in both realms.

Newland envisions a future where the bureau undergoes transformation and evolves alongside the growing strength of tribal governments over the next century.

“I believe it would greatly benefit the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to have a strong presence of contracting officials and subject matter experts on policy. This way, the tribes would have the necessary support and resources to effectively address their own needs and manage their affairs. Our role within the federal government should be one of assistance, allowing the tribes to take charge and make decisions that directly impact their communities.”

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is captured in a photograph in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Monday, June 12, 2023.

In an ideal world, where the legal framework of tribal nations is not dictated by treaties signed under coercion, outdated policies, and centuries-old legal precedents, the United States could fully embrace and enforce the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The principles of free, prior, and informed consent would be deeply ingrained in every federal Indian agency. The notion of termination as an option would be completely eradicated. Moreover, the authority and jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States in federal Indian law cases would undergo a redefinition and restriction.

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