BEND, Ore. (AP) — Since the historic appointment of Deb Haaland to head the U.S. Department of the Interior, hopes have been high among members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs that better times are ahead.
Next month the congresswoman from New Mexico will become the first Native American appointed to the position of cabinet secretary when she takes over at the Department of the Interior, which also oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo, a tribe located near Albuquerque.
Warm Springs tribal members see the appointment as a beacon of light following a tough year of wildfire, high rates of COVID-19 and infrastructure failures that left parts of the reservation without potable water, The Bulletin reported.
“Considering our large number of COVID-19 cases, everyone seems happy and excited for the potential of what Deb Haaland could do,” said Dustin Seyler, a Warm Springs tribal member.
The tribes have been hit hard by COVID. As of Monday, the tribes had 664 total positive cases since the start of the pandemic and 14 deaths, a relatively high case rate for an area with just 5,000 people.
“Since she will be in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there could be a lot of change that happens in that office, which has so much influence over all the tribes in the U.S.,” said Seyler, who works as a small business program manager for the Warm Springs Community Action Team, a nonprofit organization.
Seyler says the bureau neglected to fulfill its responsibilities when it came to working with Warm Springs on infrastructure improvements in its central area, also called the campus. Most of the buildings on the Warm Springs Campus are filled with lead paint, asbestos and other dangerous contaminants, he said.
“It’s been a 20-year fight to get them to pay for the repairs,” said Seyler. “That is just one example of the many issues the BIA caused and left for the tribes to clean up. These are things we don’t have the money or skilled workforce to deal with.”
The Warm Springs tribal government has also tangled with the Bureau of Indian Affairs over responsibility for the reservation’s water delivery system. The system has broken down on multiple occasions in recent years, forcing residents to boil water or collect water jugs from an emergency distribution center. The bureau installed the system more than 40 years ago, but there’s been debate over who should foot the bill for maintenance and upkeep.
Seyler said one outcome of having Haaland at the helm could be improvements and modifications at what he described as “outdated” rules at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also sees the nomination of Haaland as a chance to hit the reset button between Washington and tribes.
Haaland’s “knowledge of the urgent need to right historic injustices will help generate long-overdue help for tribes,” said Wyden. “Her appointment marks a monumental achievement for Native Americans.”
Wyden anticipates that working with Haaland and the incoming Biden administration will smooth the approval and implementation process of the Western Tribal Water Infrastructure Act, which if greenlighted would provide millions of dollars to improve water infrastructure at Warm Springs.
Haaland, who describes herself as a 35th generation New Mexican, has not yet set out policy goals but in her acceptance speech described early life challenges including being homeless and reliance on food stamps.
“These struggles gave me perspectives though, so I can help people to succeed,” she said.
Carina Miller, an economic research analyst with the community action team, said the addition of a Native American to the cabinet will give the U.S. government long-overlooked perspectives on critical issues such as social injustice and climate change.
“The indigenous knowledge that has long been disrespected will be utilized,” said Miller.
Miller said it’s not clear yet what direct impact Haaland’s appointment will have at Warm Springs, but she takes a broader view that the appointment will be good for tribes across the country.
For the first time, Miller said, tribes will not have to spend valuable resources and time educating a cabinet secretary on tribal politics and policy.
“Less money and time will be spent educating people within the Department of the Interior, and on playing defense against environmental attacks,” Miller said. “Deb Haaland’s appointment to head the department is going to be a turning point for this nation.”