Native Gains: Deb Haaland, Joe Biden, and Harry Slickpoo

It’s hard to get a handle on it. So much has happened in and for Indian Country since Biden took office and appointed Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) Secretary of the Interior. Haaland had held tribal offices, headed the New Mexico State Democratic party, and had served in the US House of Representatives before she became the first Native American to be a US Cabinet secretary. She knew the ropes, and she hit the ground running.

It was a big deal that she was the first Native cabinet secretary—and that in itself made the news. But the first big event in her tenure was Indian Boarding Schools. No sooner had the revelations about children’s graves in British Columbia hit the press than Haaland had a committee looking at US Boarding Schools, their graveyards and their impacts to the present day. The Truth and Healing Commission to examined past U.S. government efforts to eradicate the languages, identities and cultural practices of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. Haaland gave them a year to report, and the committee had discovered over 400 US Government supported boarding schools, and over 50 unmarked gravesites in that time. With Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community), she is visiting those sites and taking testimony from tribal members—not only of the relatives who died, but of the generational impact on families.

In 2021, Haaland announced a $125 million investment from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda to restore the nation’s lands and waters. Although she took heat from the environmental community for negotiated settlements on oil extraction, she won applause for protecting the cultural and historic resources surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park. In our region, the jointly operated fish hatchery at the Dworshak Dam on the Clearwater River was turned over to the Nez Perce Tribe, and Haaland was there for the turnover.

More recently, the historic agreement between the government and the Northwest treaty tribes promises an allout effort at salmon restoration. The governors of Washington and Oregon and four American Indian tribal leaders gathered Friday, Feb. 23, at the White House to celebrate last year’s agreement to avoid litigation over dams in the Columbia River Basin. The agreement was announced in December after years of negotiation among the states, tribes in the region, environmental groups and federal agencies. It establishes a path to reviving the area’s salmon and steelhead populations and called for a 10-year pause in legal fighting—and promises a billion dollars for the effort! There is no guarantee that lower Snake River dams will be breeched, but tribal leaders like Nez Perce Shannon Wheeler are hopeful.

A couple of weeks ago we were hit with another stunning move on the part of the US Government, its relations and the relations of museums and collections across the country with tribes. We must make good on promises made under the American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 — commonly known as NAGPRA. The Act promised repatriation and consultation regarding human remains and funerary objects. Nonprofit investigative news outlet ProPublica brought it to a head when it reported last year that museums across America had yet to repatriate more than 110,000 Native American remains.

For decades—since 1990, museums found loopholes in the law to get around NAGPRA and have kept ancestral remains in their collections. They are now on a short leash to do the job. Major museums have closed or covered exhibits, and there is a real effort by some to involve tribal people in the disposition of objects and the mounting of new exhibits. Pro Publica might have broken the story, but Haaland’s hand—and Biden’s support—are evident in the scurry among major institutions like Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to comply with new timelines.

Back at a local level, in a simpler yet very meaningful event, Mr. Harry Slickpoo Jr., known by his Nez Perce name, tisqeˀ ˀilp’ilp, became the first Nez Perce educator and advocate for nimiipuutimpt, the Nez Perce language and culture, to receive the Idaho Educator Certification. This historic achievement occurred on International Mother Tongue Day, February 21, 2024. Since 2019, he has been serving at Northwest Indian College—Nez Perce Site. He has been instrumental in bringing together the three Nez Perce Language speaking communities of the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, the Confederated Colville Tribes at Nespelem, Washington, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation at Mission, Oregon. And, since the beginning of the academic year 2023-2024, Mr. Slickpoo is teaching Nez Perce language and culture at Lewiston High School.

The rush to save and promote Native languages—here and across the world—has grown steadily over the last 20 or 30 years. With direction from the Nez Perce Tribe, the State of Idaho established this certification process years ago. But it is fitting that Harry, the State of Idaho, and this acknowledgement occur during the tenure of Secretary Deb Haaland at the Department of the Interior.

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Photo: Salt Lake Tribune: Biden returns 2 million acres to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase

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