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On March 15, when the Senate confirmed her appointment as Secretary of the Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico made history by becoming the first Native American to lead a U.S. cabinet agency. Secretary Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a “35th-generation New Mexican.”

To help in understanding the significance of this appointment, I interviewed my colleague and friend Prof. Jamie Skillen, Professor of Environmental Studies at Calvin University. Jamie is the author most recently of This Land is My Land: Rebellion in the West(Oxford 2020). In Jamie’s fascinating responses to my questions, he places Haaland’s appointment in its historical context, explains what federal land management involves, and describes what Haaland’s leadership could mean for addressing the climate crisis.

(I’ve added bold type to emphasize key topics in the interview.)

Debra Rienstra: According to my vast research on Twitter, people in the climate movement, especially American Indigenous leaders on climate, are pretty thrilled about Haaland’s appointment as Secretary of the Interior. As you see it, what is the significance of her appointment?

Jamie Skillen: It would be hard to overstate the significance of this milestone. To understand why, you need to know about the complicated history of relationships between the federal government and American Indian tribes. Most readers know something about the history of Indigenous peoples’ dispossession, but they probably only learned about the 18th and 19th centuries, when the U.S. military waged war on a number of tribes or simply removed tribes from their aboriginal land and relocated them to Indian Reservations. Like slavery, readers might think, that is something shameful in the nation’s distant past.

But the situation is far more complicated. First, the basic legal principle behind Indian dispossession, the Doctrine of Discovery, has never been repudiated. The Supreme Court recognized this doctrine in 1823 (Johnson v. M’Intosh), ruling that it “gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” And the doctrine was upheld by the Supreme Court as recently as 2005.

Second, the federal government exercised this legal right in complicated and ever-changing ways. It created Indian reservations, over which tribes exercised qualified sovereignty. During the first half of the twentieth century, the federal government focused on Indian assimilation. It removed Indian children from their homes and sent them to boarding schools; it terminatedtribal sovereignty for numerous tribes and privatized their land; and it pushed tribes to integrate with the broader economy. In the second half of the twentieth century, the federal government recognized some of those tribes as sovereign once again, but often without restoring sovereign territory. The tribes, for their part, have won significant legal cases, in which the courts have recognized long-neglected hunting and fishing rights. And the Department of the Interior has been the primary authority in these matters.

Third, the federal government maintains a trust responsibility for Indian reservations and recognized Indian tribes, and the exercise of this responsibility is fraught. For example, the government assumes responsibility for Indian health care through the Indian Health Service, providing woefully inadequate care. Beyond healthcare, which is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, most other responsibilities fall under Haaland’s Interior Department, either through the Bureau of Land Management or the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Haaland’s appoint is therefore a powerful signal to Indian tribes that the Biden administration intends to consider tribal concerns at the highest level, and it gives American Indians and Native Alaskans some cautious hope that relationships with the federal government can improve, even if incrementally.

DR: What exactly does the Secretary of the Interior do? What are some important things to know about the history of this post?

JS: The Secretary of the Interior oversees about a dozen agencies and about 70,000 employees managing the majority of federal lands and resources. Congress created it in 1849 largely to oversee transfer of federal land into state and private ownership, but that work is now quite limited. Today, the Interior Department focuses on managing federal lands, such as national parks and wildlife refuges; managing the development of federally owned minerals; fulfilling the government’s trust responsibilities for tribes; maintaining a vast infrastructure of water reclamation projects in the West; and conducting basic scientific research.

Interior Secretaries are almost always westerners, because the Interior Department’s responsibilities lie disproportionately in the eleven contiguous western states and Alaska. Indeed, the federal government owns roughly fifty percent of all land in those states, and it owns the vast majority of mineral reserves. Given this lopsided distribution, the Interior Secretary is constantly negotiating regional, or sectional, tensions between the federal government and western states. The secretary is also constantly negotiating the balance between protection of land and resources and their development. For example, the Interior Secretary oversees most endangered species protection but also offers oil leases in wildlife refuges. And not surprisingly, that balance between protection and development can shift dramatically from one administration to the next.

DR: What can we expect in terms of policy changes or actions from Haaland’s tenure?

JS: The single most controversial set of changes we can expect is related to fossil fuels and climate change. Fossil fuels are the primary driver of climate change, and the federal government owns the majority of fossil fuel reserves. President Biden has pledged to stop new fossil fuel leasing, which would ripple through the U.S. economy. For states like Wyoming and Alaska, which depend economically on fossil fuels, this is likely to spark another round of conflict similar to the past Sagebrush Rebellions I describe in This Land Is My Land. At the same time, we can expect an acceleration of solar and wind energy permits on federal land, which will create their own controversies.

Beyond that, I anticipate two other broad sets of changes. Haaland will work at a variety of levels to alter federal decision making, particularly elevating the role of science in decision making and expanding opportunities for public input into decision making relative to the Trump administration’s approach. This will be done through new administrative regulations.

And Haaland will elevate the voices of Native American tribes, both on reservations and in the management of sacred sites that exist on federal lands outside of those reservations. We see this already in her review of the Bears Ears National Monument Boundaries, establishment of a task force to address missing and murdered persons cases on reservations, and more frequent meetings with tribal leaders.  

DR: What actions are you most eager to see and why?

JS: It’s a long list. Perhaps at the broadest level, I am eager to see Secretary Haaland help restore morale in the agencies she oversees. The Trump administration had a demoralizing impact on federal land agencies. For example, the Bureau of Land Management’s last acting director under President Trump was a long-time advocate of getting rid of federal lands, and the administration moved the agency’s headquarters out of Washington, effectively sidelining career staff in significant national discussions. I am eager to see Secretary Haaland engage career professionals more seriously, and I am eager to see her rely on the scientific expertise of Interior staff.

More specifically, I am eager to see the agency take climate science seriously. Climate change has direct bearing on a host of issues that Interior handles, from water reclamation to wildlife risk and management. President Trump refused to consider the impacts of climate change, often denying that climate change was a factor at all. Any plans for fire management or endangered species protection that do not account for climate change are doomed to failure.

DR: What is your sense of what Indigenous groups are most hoping for from Haaland’s tenure?

There is undoubtedly a diversity of opinion among Indigenous groups, so I hesitate to prioritize particular issues. From what I read, Indigenous groups are cautiously hopeful, but they aren’t naïve. No Interior Secretary can fully address the history of injustice nor the host of challenges that American Indians and Alaska Natives face. 

I think that Indigenous groups have real hope and confidence that they will have access to senior leaders in the Interior Department, which is a meaningful change. They are also seeking concrete improvements in areas like healthcare. COVID-19 has highlighted health disparities in the United States, including disparities for American Indians and Alaska Natives. (These groups had the highest hospitalization rates and the highest death rates.)

The other shared hope, I believe, is that their interests will gain greater weight in complex land management decisions, such as renegotiating the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument or routing oil pipelines. As a start, they would like influence at least equal to other groups, like the oil industry, ranchers, etc. But many Indigenous groups argue that their history on the land and the links between land and their cultural identity should make them more than just an interest group. In negotiating with federally recognized tribes, they hope to be in a position for government-to-government negotiations with the federal government.

DR: Your recent book is about the history of conservative rebellion in the American West over the past 40 years, but of course the events you examine in the book are rooted in deeper history. What should we all understand about the role of federal land management in the US?

JS: One of the first things I want to impress on readers is simply the scale of federal land ownership in the United States, particularly in the eleven western states and Alaska. The federal government, for example, owns 82 percent of Nevada, so it is the de facto land use planner in that state.

Since all Americans have some say in their management, at least indirectly through elections, it is important to recognize that these lands are a repository of our national values. Just look at federal land designations—historic sites and battlefields, scenic parks, national forests and grasslands, wildlife refuges. These lands show what we value collectively. And look at the diversity of uses—timber production, mining, livestock grazing, recreation, historic preservation, etc. These uses embody the tensions and contradictions of our relationship to the nonhuman creation.

Federal lands also offer possibilities that simply don’t exist on privately owned land, not least the possibility of addressing some of the past and present injustices suffered by American Indians. (Alaska Natives have a very different history and set of political challenges.) In other words, it is still possible to cede land back to Indian tribes or test co-management of land and resources without trampling on current private property rights.

And federal lands offer the possibility of 30 by 30, meaning conservation protection of 30 percent of all land in the United States by 2030. Consider, for example, the possibility of protecting roadless areas in the United States. As it is, roughly 5 percent of all land is designated wilderness, which means that roads are prohibited by law. But there are tens of millions of acres of additional roadless lands managed by the departments of interior and agriculture that could receive permanent protection without limiting anything but future potential for resource development. Keeping these lands roadless is the simplest and most cost-effective way to achieve national conservation goals.  

Limited restitution for American Indians and increased land protection are possible without foreclosing on economic development. The vast federal estate can still provide timber, forage, minerals, and other economic resources for the nation.

DR: Thank you so much for generously sharing your expertise today.

JS: My pleasure.

For more information on Deb Haaland’s background, you can go here or here. You can find more information on Prof. Skillen here.

A note on terms: In this interview, Jamie and I attempted to use respectful and accepted terms to describe the native peoples of the US, consulting official guidelines for current usage. The term “Indian,” while problematic for a number of reasons, persists in historical reference and in the names of agencies, and some tribes do continue to use it. Despite our efforts, we may have made unintentional errors in our usage. Knowledgeable readers are welcome to make corrections or suggestions in the comments. 

Image via Facebook.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Great stuff, thanks. A comparison to the Canadian experience would be interesting and instructive.

  • David Hoekema says:

    A very thorough and informative overview — my thanks to interviewer and interviewee!

  • This article unswervingly targets similar consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery mindset upon the First Nations populations and descendants within “Canada” – eleven, sweeping geographic Federal/Crown crippling Treaties; Reservations; over 100 years of Residential Schools, Removing children and putting them up for adoption by “white” couples throughout Canada and the USA … hundreds of thousands of hectares of land and waterways (food, drinking water, livelihood, personal home and community sites, often for hundreds of years.
    Myself, I am a “settlers” grandson: in 1883 through the 1930’s my Grandfather and his older brother were successful Hudson Bay Agents. Throughout the last 40 +/- years I have read, attended First Nations gatherings, Federal and Provincial hearings and public lectures/conferences, the final Federal Truth and Reconciliation gathering in Edmonton.
    From within the foregoing very sketchy glimpse of my own “blindness” regarding the intentional abuse of First Nations I am thankful for both Debra Reinstra’s very public “Cautious Hope” and for its having been posted on a Reformed website!

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