ALBUQUERQUE, NM – It was a quick trip for U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland with stops to hike through the desert scrub near the U.S.-Mexico border and marvel at the Organ Mountains shredded before soaking up life in one of the oldest settlements along a historic trade route.
For Haaland, the time spent in West Texas and New Mexico in recent days served to highlight the work being done to conserve parts of the frontier regions.
But it also marked an opportunity for Haaland — as head of the agency that largely oversees tribal affairs — to deliver on his promises to meet with Native American tribes who are growing frustrated with the federal government’s failure to meet with them. include in decision-making about land. the management, energy development or protection of sacred sites.
Haaland’s selection as the first Native American to hold this office opened a door for tribes who pointed to a history full of unfulfilled promises.
“I want the days of tribes being on the back burner to be over, and I want to make sure they have real opportunities to sit at the table,” Haaland said on March 17, 2021, his first day on work.
Haaland has since met with nearly 130 of the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes as she seeks to overhaul a federal system that has limited Native American relations to a box-ticking exercise.
And while some tribes say its aspirations are admirable, others remain skeptical that they will see real change and say they have yet to experience meaningful dialogue with the federal government or key policymakers.
The department of Haaland has developed a plan to improve formal consultations with the tribes and created an advisory committee that will facilitate communication once it is operational. In an effort to make consultation a feature of her tenure, Haaland said she wants the integration of tribal input to become second nature to her employees.
There was some success as the tribes felt heard when the Biden administration restored the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and when the US Department of Agriculture withdrew a declaration of environmental impact that paved the way for a copper mining operation in Arizona to consult further. with the tribes.
But frustrations persist among tribal leaders who say their conversations with the federal government have not resulted in action on the ground.
For the Ute Indian tribe in Utah, those frustrations lie in managing the Colorado River Basin as western states grapple with less water amid a mega-drought and climate change. The tribes were not included in a century-old pact that divided the water, and the Ute tribe says they face the same exclusion now.
The tribe’s affairs committee has spent hours in meetings and preparing official comments and says it is tired of having to reiterate its position that the federal government must protect the tribe’s water rights or support development. hydraulic infrastructure to serve the reserve.
Committee chairman Shaun Chapoose said he had seen proposals, but “the real things where the rubber meets the road haven’t happened yet, and the drought is getting worse.”
There are similar sentiments among Navajo Nation lawmakers who are concerned about Haaland’s plans to ban oil and gas development on federal lands surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northwest New York. Mexico.
Advocacy groups sent a letter to Haaland Thursday, saying more needs to be done to include tribes as his department charts a course to protect culturally significant areas in northwest New Mexico.
The Department of the Interior said further meetings with the Navajo Nation and other tribes are scheduled for April and that Navajo language translators will attend.
In Nevada, several tribes and the National Congress of American Indians have called on the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to uphold the requirement to engage in “robust and adequate” tribal consultation regarding plans for a massive lithium mine at Thacker Pass. So far, the tribes say that hasn’t happened.
Under the Constitution, treaties, and laws of the United States, the federal government must consult meaningfully and in good faith with Native American and Alaska Native tribes when making decisions or taking actions that may have an impact on them.
However, a 2019 report by a government watchdog found that some federal agencies lacked respect for tribal sovereignty, did not have enough resources for consultation, or could not always reach tribes.
Another major complaint from the tribes is that they are brought in when a plan of action has already been defined, instead of including them in the early stages of planning.
“The federal government says all the right words, but their mentality is one that they don’t really do it in a way that reflects the proper government-to-government relationship that I think tribes are moving towards when they enter in those conversations,” said Justin Richland, a professor at the University of California-Irvine School of Social Sciences who specializes in Native American law and politics.
Consultation doesn’t always lead to action or create substantive rights on the part of tribes, making it a bit of a “toothless tiger”, said Dylan Hedden-Nicely, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who leads the Native American Law Program at the University of Idaho.
He said it was reasonable, though incorrect, to think things would go quickly with Haaland — a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico — because she had a knowledge base about Indian country when she took office. But the groundwork is still in the works to effect real change, Hedden-Nicely said.
“It’s not immediate, but it will be worth the wait, I hope,” he said.
During Haaland’s confirmation hearings, Interior staff consulted with tribes on how to improve the process.
“Secretary Haaland and the entire department take seriously our commitment to strengthening tribal sovereignty and self-reliance, and we have affirmed that strong consultations are cornerstones of federal Indian policy,” the spokesperson said. of the department, Tyler Cherry, in a statement to The Associated Press.
President Joe Biden issued a memo during his first month in office, reaffirming previous executive orders on tribal consultation and directing federal agencies to clarify how they will comply. This sparked Haaland’s efforts to give tribal leaders a direct line of communication with the Home Office.
A congressional committee is scheduled for next week to consider a bill by Democratic U.S. Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona that would codify a tribal consultation framework that supporters say would insulate the process from administration changes.
The legislation faces an uphill battle, and some tribes want to make sure it includes a pathway not only for the federal government to start consultation, but also for tribal leaders to start conversations. Similar legislation introduced in the past has failed.
For Amber Torres, president of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Nevada, the consultation should be more than a generic letter or email.
“I want a real, meaningful, face-to-face dialogue with timeline, intent and follow-up and next steps agreed to by both parties,” she said. “Making the Tribal Consultation Process into law is long overdue, and it would be a step in the right direction to ensure that the sovereignty of tribal nations is protected.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona.