By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN and FELICIA FONSECA, Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — It was a short trip for U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, with stops to hike through desert scrub near the U.S.-Mexico border and marvel at the rugged Organ Mountains before embracing life in one of the oldest settlements along a historic trade route.
For Haaland, the time he’s spent in west Texas and New Mexico over the past few days has helped highlight the work being done to preserve parts of the borderlands.
But it was also an opportunity for Haaland — as head of the agency that has a broad view of tribal affairs — to make good on promises to meet with Native American tribes, who are increasingly frustrated that the federal government is not including them in decisions about land management, energy development or the protection of sacred sites.
Haaland’s selection as the first Indian to serve in the position opened a door for tribes, who pointed to a history of broken promises.
“I want the era of tribes on the back burner to be over, and I want to make sure they have real opportunities to sit at the table,” Haaland said on March 17, 2021, her first day at work.
Haaland has since met with nearly 130 of the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes to overhaul a federal system that has kept Native American relations down to a check-the-box exercise.
And while some tribes say their aspirations are admirable, others remain skeptical they will see real change, saying they are yet to engage in meaningful dialogue with the federal government or key decision-makers.
Haaland’s department has developed a plan to improve formal consultations with tribes and established an advisory committee that will help with communication once it is operational. In an effort to make counseling a hallmark of her tenure, Haaland has said she wants the integration of tribal contributions to become second nature for her staff.
There was some success as tribes felt heard when the Biden administration restored the original boundaries of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and when the US Department of Agriculture withdrew an environmental impact statement paving the way for a copper mining operation in Arizona, further consultations to perform with tribes.
But frustration lingers among tribal leaders, who say their talks with the federal government have not resulted in action on the ground.
For the Ute Indian tribe of Utah, those frustrations lie in the management of the Colorado River drainage basin as western states grapple with less water amid mega-droughts and climate change. Tribes weren’t included in a centuries-old water-dividing treaty, and the Ute tribe say they now see the same exclusion.
The tribe’s business committee has spent hours in meetings and preparing formal comments, and says it is tired of having to repeat its position that the federal government must protect the tribe’s water rights or support the development of water infrastructure to serve the reservation.
Committee chair Shaun Chapoose said he’s seen proposals but “actual things where the rubber hits the road haven’t happened yet and the drought is getting worse.”
There are similar sentiments among Navajo Nation lawmakers concerned about Haaland’s plans to barred oil and gas exploration on federal land around Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.
Advocacy groups sent a letter to Haaland Thursday saying more needs to be done to include tribes while her department charts a path to protecting culturally significant areas in northwestern New Mexico.
The Department of the Interior said more meetings with the Navajo Nation and other tribes are planned in April and that Navajo-language translators will be in attendance.
In Nevada, several tribes and the American Indian National Congress have asked the Department of the Interior and the US Bureau of Land Management to maintain an obligation to engage in “robust and reasonable” tribal consultations on plans for a massive lithium mine at Thacker Pass. So far, the tribes say, that hasn’t happened.
Under the US Constitution, treaties and statutes, the federal government is required to consult reasonably and in good faith with the Native American and Alaskan Indian tribes when making decisions or taking actions that are expected to affect them.
However, a 2019 report by a government regulator found that some federal agencies failed to respect tribal sovereignty, lacked sufficient resources for consultation, or could not always reach out to the tribes.
Another major complaint from tribes is that they are consulted when a course of action has already been established, rather than involving them in the earliest stages of planning.
“The federal government is saying all the right words, but their mentality is one where they’re not really doing it in a way that reflects the right government-to-government relationship, which I think the tribes orient themselves towards when they go into this one.” conversations occur. said Justin Richland, a professor at the University of California-Irvine School of Social Sciences who specializes in Native American law and politics.
Consultations don’t always result in action or create substantive rights on the part of tribes, making them something of a “toothless tiger,” said Dylan Hedden-Nicely, a Cherokee Nation citizen who directs the Native American Law Program at the University of Idaho.
He said it’s reasonable, if wrong, to think things would move quickly at Haaland – a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico – because she had a basic knowledge of Indian Country when she took office. But the groundwork for real change is still being laid, Hedden-Nicely said.
“It’s not immediate, but it will be worth the wait, I hope,” he said.
During hearings to confirm Haaland, Home Office officials consulted with tribes on how the process could be improved.
“Secretary Haaland and the entire Department take seriously our commitment to strengthening tribal sovereignty and self-government, and we have reiterated that sound consultations are the cornerstones of federal Indian policy,” Department spokesman Tyler Cherry said in a statement to The Associated Press.
President Joe Biden issued a memo in his first month in office reaffirming previous executive orders on tribal consultation and directing federal agencies to outline how they will comply. That kickstarted Haaland’s efforts to give tribal leaders a direct link to the Home Office.
A congressional committee is scheduled to review next week a bill by Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva that would codify a framework for tribal consultations that proponents say would isolate the process from administrative changes.
Legislation faces an uphill battle, and some tribes want to make sure it includes a way not only for the federal government to initiate consultations, but also for tribal leaders to start talks. Similar laws introduced in the past have failed.
For Amber Torres, leader of Nevada’s Walker River Paiute Tribe, a consultation should be more than a generic letter or email.
“I want a real, meaningful, face-to-face dialogue with a timeline, intentions and follow-up, and next steps agreed by both parties,” she said. “It is long overdue to make the tribal consultation process law and it would be a step in the right direction to ensure the sovereignty of tribal nations is protected.”
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona.
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