With so much land under federal control in the West, it’s long been said the secretary of the interior has much more of a direct affect on most people’s lives than the president. This experience could arguably be multiplied tenfold on reservations. In her confirmation hearing earlier this year, Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo
With so much land under federal control in the West, it’s long been said the secretary of the interior has much more of a direct affect on most people’s lives than the president. This experience could arguably be multiplied tenfold on reservations.
In her confirmation hearing earlier this year, Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, nodded to the fact that the department she now leads was historically used as a tool of oppression toward tribes.
“This moment is profound when we consider the fact that a former Secretary of the Interior once proclaimed his goal to, quote, civilize or exterminate us,” Haaland said quoting an Interior report from 1851, under then Secretary Alexander H.H. Stuart. “I’m a living testament to the failure of that horrific ideology.”
Haaland, the former Democratic congresswoman, made history Monday by becoming the first indigenous interior secretary. She’s promising to begin repairing a legacy of broken treaties and abuses committed by the federal government toward tribes. It’s one pillar of a long and ambitious to-do list of reforms the administration is planning at the sprawling agency that is the federal government’s most direct contact with the nation’s 574 federally recognized — and sovereign — tribes.
In much of Indian Country, the history is more than just symbolic.
“It feels like we are moving and we are claiming what we could have done a long time ago,” said Mary Jane Miles, 81, a member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee in Idaho.
Miles said a traditional song was sung and there was an impromptu celebration at her tribe’s headquarters the moment Haaland was formally confirmed by the Senate.
The Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu in their native language, consider much of the Northwest their ancestral land. But through a series of treaties they’re now confined to a small slice of remote Idaho river country. Like most tribes, their land is held in trust by the federal government and leaders here say the U.S. has long shirked its obligation to protect the land, its wildlife and other issues of cultural importance to the tribe.
Today, the salmon and steelhead trout that were once abundant on the Snake and Clearwater rivers are nearing extinction. Miles also pointed to a legacy of toxic messes from mining that occurred on ancestral Nez Perce land often with little or no consultation by the tribe.
“Sometimes when we look at some of the things that the past has done for our tribe, we’ve noticed that maybe we’ve been taken,” she said.
Nationwide, tribal leaders believe the injustices of the past might start to be reversed under Haaland. The Biden administration has indicated it’s reinstating an Obama-era rule requiring consultation with tribes, meaning that any future lands development or right of way projects like pipeline must be signed off on by affected tribes.
“Protection of this government-to-government relationship is all important to the tribes,” said Jon Echohawk, executive director and attorney with the Native American Rights Fund in Colorado.
Echohawk said that relationship is fraught because Interior agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs have been chronically underfunded. He says the previous administration also spurned tribal input on major lands decisions like the opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, the Keystone Pipeline and the 85% reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument.
There is already pressure on the new administration to reinstate Bears Ears in Utah or possibly even expand it beyond its original boundaries. The land is rich with artifacts and other cultural resources considered sacred to many tribes. Haaland has said only she’s planning to travel there next month for a listening tour.
Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, said she expects Haaland to take a measured approach on a lot of controversial issues at Interior given the historic nature of her appointment.
“If she goes in and is radical, you know, who comes behind her, what native comes behind her, all of us will get judged by what she does,” Morris said.
For sure, there is a lot of pressure on Haaland in even just the first few days of her tenure.
Back on the Nez Perce, tribal leaders like Casey Mitchell want Haaland’s ear on saving the salmon.
“She would be able to give the indigenous people a voice, the indigenous people have always been on the other side,” Mitchell said.
And he’s optimistic because unlike with with many previous administrations, he said, there’s no learning curve with the new secretary.
“There’s always so much high turnover within government entities that sometimes that plays in as an excuse,” Mitchell said. ” As a government entity there should not be any excuse for the trust responsibility that you hold to the tribes.”
For the Nez Perce, that trust responsibility is at the heart of a new deal brokered by Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson to remove four dams on the Snake River downstream from here, a plan they hope Deb Haaland will put in front of the president soon.
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Support for COVID-19 vaccination is rising among Black and Hispanic people in the U.S. NPR’s Jon Hamilton reports that information campaigns and first-hand experience appear to be wiping away early doubts about vaccine safety.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: When COVID-19 vaccines started arriving in Memphis late last year, some Black residents were concerned. Do the vaccines cause infertility? Do they alter a person’s DNA? They don’t, and community leaders worked hard to counter these and other vaccine myths. Even so, Dr. Pat Flynn was worried that vaccination sites might be dominated by white people in a town where most residents are Black.
PATRICIA FLYNN: I was surprised that it was an extremely mixed population representative of our community who was coming through to get vaccines.
HAMILTON: The Memphis experience reflects a national shift in what’s often called vaccine hesitancy. In late 2020, national surveys found that Black and Hispanic respondents were less likely than white respondents to say they planned to get a vaccine. Surveys from the past month, though, suggest that gap has diminished or disappeared.
Flynn, an infectious disease specialist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, says there’s been a clear change among health care workers at her own institution.
FLYNN: We kind of looked at it and thought, surely everybody will want to get a vaccine. But initially, our uptake was not as high as we thought it would be.
HAMILTON: Since then, Flynn says, vaccination rates at the hospital have been rising.
FLYNN: There were some people that were kind of delaying to see what happened when everybody else got a vaccine. And now, later in the campaign, they may be stepping forward to roll up their sleeves and get a vaccine.
HAMILTON: Latinx communities appear to be embracing not only COVID-19 vaccines, but seasonal flu shots. Dolores Albarracin is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She says data from the 2019 flu season found a vaccination rate of 38% among Hispanic Americans, compared with 53% among white Americans.
DOLORES ALBARRACIN: However, the latest data on getting the flu shot are a little bit different because Hispanics are actually vaccinating on the higher rates than other whites.
HAMILTON: With the COVID-19 vaccine, there’s still a small gap between Hispanic and white Americans, but Albarracin says that’s partly because Hispanic Americans as a group are younger than white Americans. And younger people are generally less interested in getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
ALBARRACIN: Once you take that into account, the gap is much less.
HAMILTON: Albarracin says it might disappear entirely if more vaccine information was in Spanish and employers made it easier for Hispanic workers to take time off to get a vaccine. Dr. Hansel Tookes of the University of Miami says many Black residents there have been held back by a digital divide. For example, when COVID-19 testing first became available, people had to sign up online, creating a barrier for those without Internet access.
HANSEL TOOKES: That was multiplied when we moved to using telehealth. So people who didn’t have access to broadband, which does not even exist in many of our historically Black communities in Miami, they were not able to access their physicians for a year.
HAMILTON: And Tookes says physicians are critical when it comes to vaccine advice.
TOOKES: We identified that this was going to be a problem very early in our public hospital system here in Miami. And part of that is why I received my COVID vaccine on TV.
HAMILTON: Tookes, who is Black, also appeared in a video explaining how the COVID-19 vaccination could benefit minority communities. And when he got his second vaccine dose, he posted a picture of the event on his Twitter feed.
TOOKES: What I always like to tell my patients is, it’s not about the fact that my arm hurt after the vaccine. It’s the fact that I felt hopeful for the first time in a year when that shot went into my arm.
HAMILTON: Tookes says he wants to make sure everyone else feels that way, too. Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.