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U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks with KWGS about the Biden administration's commitments to Indian Country

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Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary, spoke Wednesday via Zoom with Public Radio Tulsa's Chris Polansky, following the Tuesday close of the two-day White House Tribal Nations Summit.


PUBLIC RADIO TULSA: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, thank you so much for being with us today and hello from Tulsa.

INTERIOR SECRETARY DEB HAALAND: Hello. Nice to — nice to be with you.

PRT: So yesterday you and the White House wrapped up a two-day Tribal Nations Summit. I heard, uh, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. talked about how good it was to have the summit back after four years of not having it. Um — What's the summit all about and why was it important for the White House and the administration to bring it back?

SECRETARY HAALAND: Right. Well, of course, President Biden promised that when he, um, you know, when he was getting into office that he would reconvene the Tribal Nations Summit. And, uh, the first one yesterday was, was well-attended. It was a chance for us in the federal government, us in the federal family, to hear directly from Tribal leaders about the issues that, um, that they care deeply about.

You know, we made some announcements, we, um, had, had face-to-face, virtual face-to-face conversations with Tribal leaders about housing, energy, economic development, education, um, and so, uh, I was able to announce my, my STAC, my advisory group that I am starting with Tribal leaders. The president signed an executive order for public safety. He announced some other important, um, actions, and all in all it was a terrific summit over two days. It was really great.

PRT: And I know you discussed some of the investments into Indian Country that are coming as part of the bipartisan infrastructure deal. Um, so, our station here in Tulsa is on the Muscogee Nation reservation, uh, where I'm sitting now. Um, so as a local reporter here, I wanted to ask, for the 39 federally-recognized Tribes here in Oklahoma, what are some of the tangible things that — that they'll be seeing as part of this package?

SECRETARY HAALAND: Sure, of course. Well, um, it includes a $466 million investment for the Bureau of Indian Affairs; $250 million for construction, repair, improvement and maintenance of irrigation and power systems, safety of dams, water sanitation; $216 million for climate resilience, adaptation and community relocation planning — a lot of Tribes that live on the coast, for example, are in danger of sea level rise, and so in some of these areas they will need to pick up and move inland. So those are all issues we're going to address.

There's an historic investment of $2.5 billion dollars to help the department fulfill settlements of Indian water rights claims. That is, that is incredibly important. So, um, the bipartisan infrastructure deal, um, it is, it is historic in the amount of investment that it makes in Indian Country. And we are excited about getting that Tribal consultation on how, um, we are going to ensure that we get this out and, and get it to working for those families there.

PRT: I have another question from, um, an Oklahoma standpoint, and an Oklahoma Indian Country standpoint. I know the administration says it's committed to respecting Tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. Here in Oklahoma, of course, we had last year's Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Muscogee Nation reservation and now that applies to a few other reservations. Some folks here, um — some folks here want the court to overturn that ruling because they feel Tribal sovereignty interferes with state sovereignty. I guess I'm wondering what the federal government's role here is in preserving or protecting these reservation boundaries.

SECRETARY HAALAND: Right. Well, you know that decision came about when I was a member of Congress, and the first thing I did is a member of Congress was I called up Rep. (Tom) Cole (R-Okla. and Chickasaw Nation citizen) and, and said, you know, uh, I, I want to know what you think about this. He said the Tribes need to talk about it, right? It's — we need to listen to Tribes. And that's what this administration is all about. The Tribes need to weigh in. The Tribal leaders need to weigh in.

And I, and I know that — I mean, look: it is, it's important for them to decide for themselves how, uh, to move, you know, how to manage, how to lead their communities. And so I think the best thing we can do is absolutely listen to Tribes before decisions are made. That's the whole thing of Tribal consultation, is don't make the decisions first and then ask Tribes later. They need to be at the table for every part of the decision-making. So that'll be the most important thing.

PRT: And then you'll have their backs?

SECRETARY HAALAND: Absolutely. I mean, it's our job to, uh, to protect, uh, the treaty rights, the trust responsibilities, make sure that the federal government lives up to those trust responsibilities. But, yes, in — treaty rights, treaties never expire. These are all things that we absolutely need to do.

PRT: Thank you so much. I know I'm coming up against time so I just have one more. Um, I know I've heard you announce, um, your investigation into residential boarding schools, Indian boarding schools. I believe — though I have to fact-check this* — I believe Oklahoma had more than any other state at one point or another. Um, what will your investigation be looking like here in Oklahoma.

SECRETARY HAALAND: Well, it's interesting that you ask today. Today was the first day of Tribal consultation with the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. The first thing we are going to — I mean, all — since I announced it this past summer, we've been compiling records, getting as much information as we can. We're compiling those things and starting to go through all of it. We're having three days of Tribal consultation to ask how Tribes want us to move forward with the information that we're getting. You know, how do they want to deal with it? We want to make sure that — and I should say that [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] is participating in these consultations because we recognize that this will be a difficult time for people, to be thinking about these horrible policies that, that have been handed down from generation to generation since they happened.

So we are going to make sure that we're approaching this in a way that's respectful, um, in a way that, um, makes sure we are supporting the people whose, whose, um, family members have been taken. They need the support, um, you know, with health care and so forth. We want to make sure that we're there for that. So once we hear from them on how they want to move forward, um, we'll, we'll work on compiling that report and make sure that people get the information that they need and deserve.

PRT: Great. Is there anything I didn't touch on in our conversation that, that you'd like folks to know?

SECRETARY HAALAND: Well, I just — I mean, look, I am incredibly grateful, um, for the leadership of President Biden. He doesn't want any family getting left behind, right? This is a new era for Indian Country. We want to make sure that we are listening, that we're learning, that we're working with, um, Tribes across the country. And I really feel confident that we'll make some very positive changes with the investments of the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was just signed into law. And, by the way, many Tribal leaders attended at the White House. That was a very joyful occasion. And so we're looking forward to seeing those investments make a real difference for families across Indian Country.

PRT: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, thank you so much for being with us.

SECRETARY HAALAND: Thank you. Thank you so much.

* Frontier reports this is correct according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.