On Dec. 17, 2020, Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) was appointed by Joe Biden as Secretary of the Department of Interior (DOI). Celebratory headlines proclaimed it a “historic moment” and the identity politics-influenced left was quick to defend the appointment from questioning. The U.S. settler-empire, for the first time, has a Native woman leading a wing of government which was specifically designed to erase Indigenous people and manage stolen lands.
Immediately, Haaland’s nomination was touted as a “victory for Indigenous movements.” In these celebrations, Halaand’s history of being an establishment politician and her betrayals of internationalism, in support of U.S. imperialism, were not disclosed. These celebrations point to an assumption that Haaland, on the basis of her being an Indigenous woman, would automatically push for policies which are favorable to Indigenous relatives and the well-being of the land. The celebratory fervor did not take into account the fact that her politics are aligned with the Biden administration, and by extension, the U.S. empire.
Even under the best circumstances, individuals such as Haaland cannot move things forward for us; only mass movements, organized against capitalism and imperialism, can advance the struggle. Many people have been looking for a left analysis of this moment because they know, instinctually, that there is something more to be said about Haaland’s appointment and the apparatus in which she operates as the Secretary of the DOI.
This analysis seeks to understand the circumstances which have led to Haaland’s appointment, the reality of her leadership, and its implications on the movement for Indigenous liberation, moving forward. As Indigenous and other colonized revolutionaries, we offer a materialist antidote to the narrow and superficial narrative that has been put forward by corporate, non-profit, and even, left-media sectors. We invite our relatives and revolutionary comrades to receive and reflect upon the greater scope of Haaland’s positions and politics.
Biden has now been in power for seven months, and Deb Haaland has served as Secretary of the DOI for that time. Yet despite the Biden administration’s campaign promises to end new drilling on federal lands and to rein in climate-changing emissions, approvals to drilling and fracking are now on pace to reach their highest level since the presidency of George W. Bush. In fact, under the leadership of Haaland and the newly appointed Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bryan Newland, ex-chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community and known opponent of Enbridge’s Line 5 Pipeline, the DOI has approved over 2,500 drilling permits on public and tribal lands. Deb Haaland told Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing last month,
Gas and oil production will continue well into the future and we believe that is the reality of our economy and the world we’re living in .
Meanwhile, there is also a mass struggle being waged against heavyweights of the extractivist industries. Land, water, and treaty protectors engaged in struggle against Enbridge’s Line 3, a pipeline that would bring nearly 1 million gallons of tar sands oil a day from Alberta, Canada through Anishinaabeg territory in Minnesota and Wisconsin to Lake Superior, have been teargassed, maced, and shot with rubber bullets and pepper balls. Contractors working on the pipeline were caught trafficking women, further adding to the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women . Various petitions have been raised, calling for Haaland to put a stop to Line 3. Furthermore, actions in the U.S. House of Representatives have indicated that the settler state is looking to take its violence to the next level in the form of HR 1374–a bill that would label land, water, and treaty defenders as “terrorists,” and equip states with the resources to further protect their “critical infrastructure” with lethal force .
Despite the Biden Administration’s proposals to protect public lands from the fracking industry by suspending leasing, the extraction continued . The DOI’s promise to limit leasing on public lands does not entirely protect public lands from being privatized and sold off for unrestricted development and extraction. Furthermore, any promise to limit leases on public lands does not limit those leases already in effect nor apply to wells, infrastructure projects, or plans to deal with “produced water and the high emissions of methane.” There is an industry and policy trend towards reusing these hazardous and contaminated byproducts of oil and gas extraction to increase production for energy corporations.
The DOI originated as an arm of the settler-state whose purpose was to manage what is referred to as “Westward expansion,” the continued violent settlement of Turtle Island towards the Pacific coast. The U.S. seized large swaths of land, currently known as the “Southwest,” as spoils of victory from a competitive imperialist war with Mexico. The task of the DOI, on its initiation in 1849, was to “domesticate” these newly acquired “foreign” lands into the U.S. empire.
The DOI was united in expropriating and removing Native peoples from their lands but it was ideologically divided between managing the interests of small land-owning (land-grabbing) settlers and wealthy industrialists. The latter wanted to begin large-scale extractivist development, such as the construction of the trans-continental railroad, on the newly claimed resource rich territories. This contradiction was intensified after the U.S. completed its process of expanding Westward and shifted the duties of the DOI towards conservation of public land, despite being continuously lobbied by private industry to allow for development .
Though the DOI maintained its guise of working to restrict extractivism at home, it increasingly worked to manage resource extraction abroad until those duties were passed onto other departments in an attempt to disassociate the DOI from its contributions to environmental degradation. This helped create the contemporary image of the DOI as the arm of government which works in the interests of the public and the environment. Today, the DOI’s responsibilities mainly revolve around the management of public lands and Native communities, presiding over the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The department that was designed to displace Native people from their land for the economic development of the U.S. settler-state is now the same department that maintains paternalistic control, serving settler access to land over the needs of tribal nations and Native peoples. For the first time, the DOI is headed by a Native woman; if we understand Halaand’s policies, career, and her place within the Empire, it’s not surprising that she was appointed to this position.
Agent of Colonialism
The U.S. military has been a major instrument of neocolonialism from the mid-20th century until today and has leached from the lives of Native people to accomplish that work. For example, one in four eligible Native men served in the Korean War. Still today, over 24,000 Native people are active in military service, bringing violence abroad. We must be clear that despite their sacrifices, this service has not broken a cycle of underdevelopment in Native communities and has, instead, further entrenched Native people in U.S. imperialism.
Haaland served on the House Armed Services Committee, responsible for budgeting decisions regarding the Department of Defense and Armed Forces, and continuously stresses her attachment to the military through her family affiliations. This appeals to the imperialist establishment, especially because it is a strong taboo in the Democratic Party–it seems especially with “minority” representatives–to fail in wholeheartedly endorsing the U.S. military. More importantly, it is one of the ways in which even seemingly progressive politicians from underrepresented groups perpetuate the U.S.’s many harms overseas, in the name of misguided patriotism. Critically overlooked, the United States military is objectively the biggest polluter on the planet. Support for the U.S. military means full on support for climate disaster.
This loyalty to imperial forces extends towards supporting the illegal Zionist occupation of Palestine. In her first year as a congress member, Haaland accepted an invitation from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an incredibly well-funded zionist lobbying group with massive influence on U.S. policy, to join a delegation to occupied Palestine. Accepting invitations from AIPAC is a must for political career advancement in the empire and only after immense pressure and calls to refuse the trip, did she change course at the last minute. Calls that she decline in solidarity with Palestinian people living in conditions of apartheid and ethnic cleansing came from many organizations such as CODEPINK and sitting representative, Rashida Tlaib.
Her validation of Israel as a legitimately democratic state also affirms the U.S.’s similarly deceitful claims of democracy on stolen land. Furthermore, she voted in support of Anti-BDS, a draconian measure designed to make boycotting Israeli industry and culture a punishable offence. Her choices to align herself with the state of Israel, place her in explicit alignment with settler colonial violence. If we excuse or disregard this, we align ourselves with settler colonial violence against Palestinian people and their homelands, and deeply limit the possibility of our own liberation from settler colonial occupation, as Indigenous nations.
Sustaining Settler Race Ideology
In 2019, Haaland co-introduced the reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act . This bill proposes funding for housing and infrastructure to all 574 federally recognized tribes. Over $62 million dollars would be annually allocated to the so-called 5 Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole nations). This is 10% of the money included in the overall bill, despite the 5 tribes making up less than 1% of all federally recognized tribes which receive funding. In previous iterations of this bill, protections were made for the Freedmen of these nations—descendants of African relatives victim to chattel slavery who were enslaved by citizens of these tribal nations and relatives who were here prior to European invasion. However, the protections, or the verbiage that would cover the Freedmen under the reauthorization of this bill, is no longer there.
This bill and the violent removal of protections for Freedmen are a part of the larger structure of settler-colonial anti-Black and anti-Indigenous race ideology which works to erase Black Indigenous identity, perpetuated through ideas like “blood purity” and “blood quantum.” The logic of racialization under the settler state says that you can be Black or you can be Indigenous, but you cannot be recognized as both. A group of Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen are calling on Deb Haaland  to right these wrongs and advocate for citizenship and equal rights for all Freedmen, a bare minimum demand which would provide some immediate relief in the form of housing, healthcare, and other essential needs if fulfilled.
Masses Struggle, Individuals Advance
Despite the advancement of Native individuals up ladders of US-defined success, such as government appointments and inclusion into academic institutions, the conditions of Native people have only grown worse. For example, a record-breaking six Native people were elected into Congress in 2020 and there has been an increase of Native women with professorships in academia since the turn of the century . Yet, the number of Native people in the U.S. experiencing poverty in the last decade has gone up nearly 20% [9, 10, 11, 12] and the average per capita income of Native people is less than the average per capita income of all Americans from over 30 years ago. Worse, these figures are pre-pandemic. In fact, on almost all economic, educational, and social outcomes, Indigenous people are behind all other U.S. citizens.
Curiously, Native struggles have been mass-based, the struggle against DAPL being a major recent example. Yet, recent advancements of Native people have been celebrated on an individual basis. We aren’t celebrating victories in Oak Flat, Shinnecock Hills, or Leech Lake. We aren’t even celebrating a minor decline in poverty. We are celebrating the success of an individual. Because individuals do not win victories for the masses, we cannot be fooled that the appointment of Haaland is an advancement for Indigenous people.
A World Free from Imperialism and Settler Colonialism
It is important to understand how uncritical support for establishment politicians is perpetuated in colonized communities. The non-profit industry is a self-correcting mechanism for the neoliberal order, meaning this sector’s sometimes unconscious, but more often conscious, contribution is to brand capitalism as something capable of self-reforming by advocating for social justice issues within corporate and governmental structures. This typically requires co-opting revolutionary language and rhetoric from organic people’s movements while discarding the actual political demands of these movements. This is why, for example, a Native-led non-profit can receive millions in funding from Amazon tzar, Jeff Bezos, and mass landlords, Bill and Melinda Gates, for Land Back campaigns [13, 14], while uncritically platforming an establishment politician within an establishment party. We understand the eagerness to support a candidate like Deb Haaland, without thorough criticism, to be a symptom of liberalism. We must refuse to support candidates simply because of their identity. This simply diversifies the established imperialist order and validates the material consequences of their appointment. We encourage relatives to be honest and critical about the reality around us. Being courageous will allow us to see and accept the truth, strengthening our position as leaders of mass change.
For many, the U.S. state’s rotten nature has become unmistakable. The glaring symptoms—rampant police brutality in response to protests against police brutality and anti-Black violence, the disrespect shown towards healthcare workers, the complete neglect of elders in the middle of a pandemic, the heightening of Cold War efforts while millions starve and become unsheltered, to name a few—are clearly understood by many as the characteristics of a degenerating capitalist empire.
As Indigenous and other colonized people, our struggles have always been at the forefront of the climate movement. We must organize and fight outside of colonial institutions which only serve the people who pillage the planet for profit, most violently in the Global South.
Diversity and inclusion at the table of imperialists should not erase our memories and understanding that the empire itself is the main enemy and its continued existence is the root issue. Instead of committing ourselves to impossibly reforming the imperialist nation-state, we have a duty to our human and other-than-human relatives to build the alternatives and power needed to end the occupation and heal our planet.
- Matthew Brown, U.S. drilling approvals increase despite Biden climate pledge www.pbs.org
- AP, Six men, including two Line 3 workers, arrested in human trafficking sting www.mprnews.org
- Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Determination of Classification and Authorization for Sharing of Data Related to the Line 3 Replacement Project unicornriot.ninja
- Wenonah Hauter, Is Biden serious about climate? His 2,000 drilling and fracking permits suggest not? www.theguardian.com
- Megan Black, “Interior Imperialism: Fossil fuels, American expansion, and rebel park rangers,” n+1 Magazine (March 2017)
- H.R.5319 – Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act of 2019, www.congress.gov
- Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen, Deb Haaland: Stand Against Modern-Day Jim Crow In Indian Country www.change.org
- TIAA Institute, Taking the measure of faculty diversity www.tiaainstitute.org
- Jens Manuel Krogstad, One-in-four Native Americans and Alaska Natives are living in poverty www.pewresearch.org
- Who lives in Poverty USA? www.povertyusa.org
- U.S. Census, Facts for Features: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2018 www.census.gov
- National Congress of American Indians, Indian Country Demographics www.ncai.org
- Abby Wargo, NDN Collective expands its footprint with over $2 million in property purchases rapidcityjournal.com
- KOTA, NDN Collective gets awarded $12M from Jeff Bezos www.kotatv.com