Deb Haaland Represents a Welcome Change at Interior

Big Hole Valley, Montana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Back in 1989 Montana’s newly-elected governor, Stan Stephens, called a mock session of the Legislature to pass a Centennial Resolution celebrating the state’s first 100 years. True to his roots, the resolution Stephens presented to the legislators lauded the usual extractive industries by which Republicans so often measure success in “taming the West.”

Despite being a mock session, the resolution was open to debate on the floor of the House of Representatives — and that’s where it got real interesting. Rep. Bob Gervais, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, lifted his mic and stood to offer an amendment to the resolution. Looking around the room at his colleagues, Gervais began to speak, opening with “Governor, you forgot something in this resolution — my people.”

A hushed and embarrassed silence descended in the chamber under legendary artist Charlie Russell’s enormous painting titled “Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’ Hole.” For indeed, Stephens had completely ignored Montana’s tribal nations as if they never existed.

Rep. Gervais laughingly told how he listened every day to colleagues proudly claim to be “4th or 5th generation Montanans” while, as he said, his people “have been here for ten thousand years.” Then he read his amendment which lauded the time when millions of bison thundered across the plains, the rivers ran clear, the forests stood tall and all the native fish, wildlife, and plants existed as they had for millennia. His amendment was adopted in its entirety.

Comes now another story and reason to celebrate as President Joe Biden’s nominee Deb Haaland is confirmed to be the first woman and Native American to head the massive Department of the Interior. Unlike the “settlers,” as a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation in what is now New Mexico, Haaland can claim 35 generations of direct line of descent from her ancestors.

Considering the Department of Interior oversees 574 Tribal Nations, it’s a new day from the past administration that denigrated Native Americans by opening their sacred lands to resource extraction and viciously reducing the boundaries of National Monuments dedicated to preserving Tribal traditions. Indeed, Haaland’s confirmation brings pride and hope to America’s first nations.

As noted in a recent Missoulian article quoting Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairwoman Shelly Fyant: “It gives me chills. Grandmothers all over the world are talking about the shift the world has taken — to have a Native American and a woman to serve an agency that hasn’t always done the greatest job in Indian Country.”

Indeed, given the sweep of Interior’s scope, the comments of Chippewa-Cree Tribal member and Salish-Kootenai College professor Nicole Stiffarm’s are particularly salient. As she told reporters: “There’s a beauty to the way tribal people approach natural resources that’s not present in the mainstream. Resource management is not about fiscal gain. It’s looked at for caring, so these natural resources can then go on to care for your children and grandchildren. The lens of looking at resources outside of their financial gain capabilities has never been done before and it’s going to be added into the equation.”

It’s shameful that Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines fought tooth and nail against Haaland’s confirmation, much as Gov. Stephens simply ignored Montana’s proud Indian heritage. It’s unforgivable given the size of Montana’s Tribal population that Daines so callously disregarded.

But in the end, Daines lost, Haaland was confirmed, and we all — Indians and non-Indians alike — won visionary leadership for the Department of Interior that will see our beautiful state as something besides resources to be looted for short-term gain.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.