Deb Haaland is the “Queenpin,” but there is action in the countryside

As President Biden adds to his growing list of significant Native American appointments across the Cabinet and in Executive Branch positions, Deb Haaland, his first major Indian appointment, as Secretary of Interior, looms large and iconic as the head of the team. And its cheerleader extraordinaire. Two weeks ago she was at Dworshak Dam in Idaho, lauding a deal to give control of a steelhead and salmon hatchery to the Nez Perce Tribe. Yesterday she posted on Instagram, noting the transfer of 1,000 acres of ancestral homeland in the Tully Valley in Central New York returned to the Onondaga Nation.

Haaland leads the band of Native leaders appointed by President Biden. This week’s blockbuster appointment was Marilynn “Lynn” Malerba, who is chief of the Mohegan Tribe, as Treasurer of the United States. Chief Malerba is the first ever Native American to hold this position. The Treasurer directly oversees the U.S. Mint, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Fort Knox. And her signature will soon be on the country’s currency!

Out in the countryside, like places in rural Idaho and Oregon, Tribal leaders are contributing to federal, state and local policy and programs. Here we see it in land acquisitions, water policy, and revived cultural practices. The Nez Perce Tribe has made purchases and received donated lands in Wallowa County, and the 320 acre Wallowa Nez Perce Homeland site near the town of Wallowa boasts a wildlife and fish enhancing “side channel” designed and built under the auspices of Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries.

On the other side of the Cascades, the Fish and Wildlife Commission recently agreed to a “framework agreement” with the Coquille Indian Tribe, giving it more power in fish and wildlife management throughout a five-county area of Southwest Oregon. In Northern California, the Yuroks are acquiring land in huge chunks in the Klamath watershed, managing it for wildlife, fish, vegetation and education.

These things—and Haaland’s leading, cheerleading, and her immediate huge steps to investigate the terrible Indian Boarding School chapter in our history—all warm my heart, and, as far as I can tell, are applauded by a wide swath of Americans of different political affiliations.

Closer to me personally, I was lucky to see an old high school friend this weekend and learn a little of his Indian story. Our Oceanside, California class of 1960 missed the 60th reunion due to Covid, so someone decided to throw a combined 80th birthday party (we’ve mostly turned 80 or are about to). One of our number, a fine high school athlete we all thought part Indian, showed up for the party—he’d missed the 50th so I had not had a chance to talk with him since my own work became heavily focused on Indian affairs. And he talked—telling us that an aunt was digging into ancestral Native roots, that his ties included Native cousins among our classmates we thought “Mexican,” and that his Native family passed down one of the street names in our town. Thoughts that had remained hidden for most of his 80 years.

I told him that when I went back to the fiftieth reunion, I had met Gordon Johnson, enrolled on the Pala Reservation and the author of a collection of newspaper essays called Fast Cars and Fry Bread: Reports from the Rez. A California friend had sent me the book, which intertwines Mexican and Indian stories and peoples in Southern California. I asked Gordon what it was like growing up Indian in the 40s and 50s. “If you were light,” he said, “you passed as ‘white’; if you were dark, you said you were Mexican. Indians were at the bottom of the heap.”

It would have been nice to know that history and the culture and stories of our Native classmates and the many Indian tribes scattered across Southern California when we were in school. Would we have applauded it? Or were we caught in the embrace of a country still trying to get rid of its Native population one way and another, mostly through “assimilation” and the “termination” of Tribes in those Eisenhower years?

Indians today, Natives, Indigenous Americans are speaking up—and the rest of us are listening. To Deb Haaland and National Parks Chief Chuck Sams, to National Endowment for the Arts Director, Shelly Lowe, and we are listening to old friends and classmates who can finally tell their own stories with pride.

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