Deb Haaland and the Road to Healing

I’m often surprised to find out that friends who follow political and cultural affairs closely still do not know who Deb Haaland is. With a hint, some of them come up with “oh yes, Department of Interior, isn’t it?” But her position and her presence are not front and center in their minds.

Things are different in Indian Country. When Haaland visited Idaho a year ago to turn over the federal keys to the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery to the Nez Perce Tribe, it was a big celebration. I said to a Nez Perce friend that Deb Haaland is some kind of saint. “Yes,” she said, “and superwoman.”

A week or two ago, when Haaland banned oil drilling in a 10-mile radius from lands around the Chaco Cultural site, some Republican lawmakers—and a few members of the Navajo Nation—raised their voices in protest. Fearful of losing jobs. We learned that the Secretary values Native culture and spirituality—and is not afraid of controversy.

The frequency of Haaland’s appearance in the news media might gradually wake the general public to her presence, but until this time much of her public work has centered on issues closer to tribal concerns than those of the general public. Her appointment of another Native. Bryan Newland, an Ojibwe from Michigan and a trained lawyer, as her assistant in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, made few ripples in Congress or in the press. Her appointment of Chuck Sams, enrolled on our nearby Umatilla Reservation, as the first Native Director of the National Park Service, got good press locally, but seems not to have rankled anyone in the larger community. Indians of all bands and regions seem pleased with these appointments, and non-Indians haven’t weighed in significantly.

But the decisions she made regarding boarding school cemeteries are the ones traveling across Indian country with the most impact today. When the cemeteries were discovered in Canada, Haaland immediately commissioned a study on US boarding schools. As I recall, she asked for results within a year, and within that year more than 400 Indian boarding schools and 50 associated cemeteries were revealed.

Haaland is following that with a year-long “Road to Healing” tour. Last week in Minnesota, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe hosted an event, the seventh stop on the tour. Haaland, alongside Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland, heard from survivors of Indian boarding schools, and from descendants of survivors.

“This is one step among many that we will take to strengthen the bonds within Native communities that federal boarding schools set out to break,” Haaland said.

Watch for her name. Now that you have heard it once, you will begin seeing it frequently.

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Photo: Haaland and Newland, Saturday June 3, 2023, in Onamia, Minnesota. Credit: Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

1 Comment

  1. Excellent work Rich! Deb Haaland, in particular, is strategically taking steps to promote the Indian nation.
    I am excited to hear of the ‘Road to Healing’—similar to the approach that was taken with the Aborigines in Australia following the apology speech. I worked with organizations to bring white and aboriginal groups together for deep sharing of family stories, boarding schools and separation of children and parents.
    Keep up this necessary work!!

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