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    The future of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

    By Pauly Denetclaw,


    Pauly Denetclaw

    WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland recently visited the homelands of the White Mountain Apache nation located in, what is now known as, Arizona. Though the culture and language, they experienced that day predate this country and the government they now represent.

    “To think that a hundred years ago, this same government agency that the secretary leads, and that I lead, were actively harming kids, inflicting trauma on kids, for doing the same things we were there to celebrate,” Newland told ICT . “It's complex, but it felt really good that we're at a place now where a Cabinet secretary, on behalf of the president, can sit there, and celebrate these young Native kids speaking their language, wearing their clothes, singing their songs, dancing their dances, serving their traditional foods. It is inspiring.”
    On March 3, 2024, Bryan Newland, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, and Interior Sec. Deb Haaland visited the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona. (Courtesy, White Mountain Apache Chairman Kasey Velasquez)

    To go even further back one hundred years. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was in stark contrast in 1824 when federal Indian policy was rooted in war, blood, and death. It’s not surprising that the bureau was first planted in the War Department before being rooted permanently in the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1849.

    “Something that I've been taught over, and over again, is this concept that a tree grows from its roots in the soil in which it is planted,” Newland said.

    The bureau will see its second centennial on March 11. The history, violent legacy and repugnant policies of this agency are well documented. But its branches have grown well beyond the roots, and change has come, albeit slowly. In the next hundred years, tribal leaders and advocates see a whole host of possibilities, a U.S. Department of Native American Affairs, substantial reforms for grant funding that would ease the burden on tribal governments, and strengthening tribal sovereignty beyond what seems possible today.

    The mission of the bureau, according to its website is, “enhance the quality of life, to promote economic opportunity, and to carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes and Alaska Natives.” It serves 574 federally-recognized tribes through 12 regional offices and 83 local agencies. Since 1977, the bureau has been led by an Indigenous person.

    BIA history

    Newland, Bay Mills Indian Community, never wants to gloss over the history of the bureau he now oversees.

    “I think it's important to acknowledge that,” Newland said. “So we're not perpetuating some of the things that were inherent at the beginning of the Bureau of Indian Affairs creation, in the work we do today.”

    The bureau removed children from their communities and forced them into federal Indian boarding schools where they experienced horrific abuse, forced assimilation and for many, death, acts that would later meet the United Nations definition of genocide .

    Health services were previously under the bureau but removed after deficient facilities, insufficient supplies, and low salaries led to poor, negligent care. The bureau has egregiously mismanaged its fiduciary duties, at times White leadership using their power to funnel money from lucrative government contracts into their own pockets. The bureau made Indigenous nations subordinate to it and acted for much of its history like a lord, making decisions for Indigenous nations regardless of their needs and desires.
    Two unknown men at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North & South Dakota in September 1938. (Courtesy, National Archives)

    The shift started in 1834 when Native Americans began to receive preferential hiring. Unfortunately, as late as the 40s, White non-Native employees in the Muscogee office in Oklahoma described themselves as neutral and objective to Native employees. Saying Natives weren’t equipped to work at the bureau because they were biased in favor of tribal nations and hostile toward the federal government. At that time up to 20 percent of the employees at this regional office were Native American.

    By 2010, the bureau employees were 95 percent Native American.

    “The other practical standpoint is that in government, it's just common sense that you want to have people leading change who understand, inherently, the problems you're trying to address,” Newland said.

    Haaland was once a tribal administrator. She grew up going to ceremony, and being active in her pueblo in New Mexico. Newland grew up in tribal housing and he still lives on his “rez” in Michigan. He was a tribal leader for his nation.

    “I don't need a briefing memo,” Newland said. “The secretary doesn't need it. So, it allows us to skip all that, and just get to work, which means we can do more work with the time we have.”

    Nixon administration

    Coming out from the termination era of the mid-20th century, came self-determination and tribal sovereignty. The dramatic shift happened during the Nixon administration who gave a speech that Paul Moorehead, former chief counsel and staff director to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, looks back to every few years.

    “I read the policy once in a while, just for kicks,” Moorehead, Native American law attorney, said.

    The special message to Congress details Nixon’s plans to end forced termination and reform nearly every Native American-specific agency so it can fulfill treaty obligations. The federal government and tribal nations interact as nation-to-nation, affirmed by the U.S. Constitution, acts of Congress, and countless case law. Tribal nations are not a racial classification. They are sovereign political entities with treaties that law demands to be executed. These treaty rights were paid in full by lands ceded.

    “The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions,” Nixon stated in his special address in 1970.

    It’s an old Native joke, but it goes, “the irony that BIA is under the Department of Interior, which oversees land, trees, rocks, and water and Natives,” said Larry Wright, executive director for the National Congress of American Indians.
    Richard Nixon, seen here with tribal leaders in 1970, was a strong advocate for tribal self-determination (AP Images)
    President Nixon released a Self-Determination Policy on July 8, 1970.

    A U.S. Department of Native American Affairs, or rather Indian Affairs, has been talked about for generations, with pros and cons debated by Indian Country’s brightest from Vine Deloria Jr. to LaDonna Harris.

    “The first way to improve BIA is to get rid of BIA in the Department of the Interior,” said Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive for the Association on American Indian Affairs. “I think the best way to improve how Indian affairs are represented in the government is for it to be its own agency and to be separate from a department whose main goals are land and land management. So, my first recommendation would be to create a separate division and cabinet leader for Indian Affairs.”

    One of the benefits of the bureau is its permanency in the federal government, something a new department would not have. Every seven years, it would have to be reauthorized and this has caused skepticism in the past, especially after the termination era.

    However, the situation is different today with tribes whose political prowess is backed by powerful law firms, lobbying groups and vigilant tribal leaders. Attacks on tribal sovereignty continue but tribal nations continue to defend and expand their reach.

    “I think today with the wherewithal and the expertise the tribes have both in-house and people they hire, I think it would be very difficult to get something negative to the president of the United States and have him sign,” Moorehead said. “I think it would be almost impossible, which is a good thing because you don't have to chase these (thoughtless) ideas around. You can focus on things that we're talking about here or things at home that are important to the people.”

    A whole department and cabinet seat might not fix everything but it would be a starting point for change.

    “Having its own agency would probably be ideal, so that it is dealing with tribes directly with the White House and Congress,” Wright, Ponca, said. “Is that the answer for it all? I don't know. But definitely having tribes at the table so that we aren't forgotten continues to be important.”


    In the immediate, reforming the bureau's grant funding process and expanding tribes ability to manage their own affairs were other solutions.

    “Sometimes, it's the match requirement which can be difficult for tribes to go after grant funds and then be required to have a match, or making grants for Indian Country competitive,” Wright said. “That puts tribes against each other. Some tribes are very good, and have very good programs, and have been able to build that out, and be successful. Other tribes don't have that internal capacity for various reasons, but when it comes to that competitiveness, it puts some tribes at a disadvantage and they miss out.”

    For example, tribal historic preservation offices are treated like state historic preservation offices. They are forced to compete against other Indigenous nations for funding. The federal government requires them to meet certain mandated obligations and duties.

    “It should just be regular grant funding for those offices to use as they need,” O’Loughlin, Choctaw, said. “It's all about eliminating this kind of, I don't know what to call it besides, these forced directives to comply with how the federal government wants the tribe to establish certain processes.”

    The paternalism of grant funding binds tribes to program structures that often don’t meet the needs of their unique nation.

    “The proof’s in the pudding, when tribes manage these programs themselves, the product is a lot better for the people,” Moorehead said. “I think that should be the North Star when anybody talks about, what do you do with the BIA?”

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    The other is increasing tribal sovereignty to allow nations to better manage their own lands and resources. Something they have done since time and immemorial. This is slowly shifting with 638 programs, the HEARTH Act, and expanding the opportunity for co-management of public lands.

    “They're baby steps, but pretty revolutionary when you think about it, that a tribe can develop, manage and negotiate surface leases with third parties, whether it's a cattle company, a housing company, or whatever,” Moorehead said. “Without having to worry about what some GS-14 at Interior thinks. That's a good position to be in.”

    The bureau, much like other federal Indian agencies, is underfunded, making it challenging for it to meet the demands of its work.

    “I think Indian Affairs within the federal government is often reflective of Indian Country,” Newland said. “Resources have always been a challenge and the same is true here.”

    Ultimately, over the next century Newland hopes to see the bureau change and adapt as tribal governments become stronger.

    “I would love for the BIA to be filled with contracting officials, and some subject matter experts on policy. And then the work gets done, the money and resources flow, through the tribes,” he said. “We are here to assist within the federal government, but the tribes are fixing stuff at home and (we’re) not running it from here.”

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    In a just world—where treaties signed under duress, ancient policies and centuries old law cases—didn’t define the legal foundation of tribal nations, the United States could adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Free, prior, and informed consent would intertwine into the roots of every federal Indian agency. The option for termination would be removed entirely. The scope of the Supreme Court of the United States’ power in federal Indian law cases would be redefined and limited.

    “We need a reset button that does away with the racist precedent that's built upon the idea that Indians are the ward and the government's, the guardian. Indians are inferior, Europeans are superior, and replace it with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” O’Loughlin, Native American law attorney, said.

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