President-Elect Joe Biden made an historic choice yesterday in picking Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) to become the Secretary of the Interior. Haaland is a member of the Laguana Pueblo Nation of New Mexico and her selection makes her the first indigenous cabinet member in US History. Interior is also the home of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This is big news for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that for the first time in this country, an indigenous person is in charge of Indian Affairs. Of course, this also means that an indigenous person will now, for the first time in US History, be responsible for the continued oppression of indigenous peoples.
This is a reason for celebration. But, I am not quite ready to call this a watershed moment ‘that marks a turning point for the U.S. government’s relationship with the nation’s indigenous peoples,’ as the Washington Post claims. It is one thing to appoint Haaland to cabinet, it is another to give her the tools and support she will need to actually do this job. I do have faith that the Biden Administration will do that, don’t get me wrong. But the proof is in the pudding.
After years of watching indigenous affairs in Canada and the US, and working in the field of indigenous law and history for nearly a decade in Canada, I am incredibly sceptical when it comes to relations between indigenous nations and Canada and the US. In Canada this summer, we saw a racist hot mess in Nova Scotia this fall.
And then there’s this. It will be 2021 when Haaland takes up her post as Secretary of the Interior. That will mark over 400 years since the first Europeans landed on what became American soil. It will come after genocidal actions on the part of American people and the American nation against the indigenous across those four centuries. It will come after allowing indigenous people and nations to suffer needlessly with poor land, impoverished reserves, and toxic racism that exists in both countries to the very soul of both Canada and the United States.
Indigenous communities, people, and nations have survived all of this. And they have found ways to keep on keepin’ on.
And yet, it’s taken this long to appoint an indigenous person to the US Cabinet. Meanwhile, across the 49th parallel in Canada, Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of the Kwak’wala Nation, was a member of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, and then as Minister of Veteran Affairs, from 2015-2019, and continues to represent Vancouver-Granville as Member of Parliament. That’s it.
This is a reason to celebrate, yes. It is also a time to look inwards, to look at the way in which the structures of white supremacy have continued to perpetuate the oppression and toxic racism in both countries towards the indigenous. It is well past the time where this should be news, Haaland’s appointment. It is well past the time both countries attempted to address their toxic relations with the indigenous.