Debra Haaland

National Congress of American Indians Annual Convention Address - Oct. 12, 2021

Debra Haaland
October 12, 2021— Virtual Event
National Congress of American Indians’ 78th Annual Convention, 2021
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Thank you so much, Chairman Dr. Payment. I’m really happy to be here with you today, and with all of you [speaks in Native Language]. Greetings Tribal leaders, colleagues, friends – thank you so much to president Fawn Sharp and NCAI leadership for the invitation to speak today. I’m so grateful to be here also, alongside my tenacious and talented colleges in the Biden-Harris administration, who share in the commitment to our all of government approach to strengthen the nation to nation relationship, and normalize the role of tribal consolation in federal decision making. I’m joining you today from the ancestral homelands of the Massachusetts, the Mashpee Wampanoag, and the Pawtucket people.

Many of you may know that I ran the Boston Marathon yesterday. Running is a part of who we are as Native people, so in honor of my ancestors’ running tradition, I joined runners at the starting line on Indigenous Peoples day. A day that, for the first time ever, was recognized by the president of the United States – and what an important step for our country. And so I ran – I ran for missing and murdered indigenous people and their families; I ran for the victims of Indian boarding schools; I ran for the promise that our voices are being heard and we’ll have a part in an equitable and justice future in this new era.

So my first update is that I did not win that race, and I didn’t finish second either, but I ran my own race thankful that Creator has given me good health and the ability run. In some ways, my race and my training reflects how I lead the department of the interior. The progress we are making may not be at the fastest pace, but it will be lasting and impactful. We have a finite period of time to get things done, and I am committed to getting us across the finish line.

There are some exciting updates to share since the last time we spoke in June. I’m standing before you on the heels of a monumental announcement. This past Friday, President Biden took the profound action to permanently protect the homelands of our ancestors at the Bear’s Ears National Monument. The living landscapes with stories of existence, celebration, survival, and reverence are etched into the sandstone canyon walls. As I said during the president’s ceremony, the announcement was about more than just a monument. It was a demonstration of this administration’s commitment to centering the voices of indigenous peoples and affirming the shared stewardship of our country with tribal nations. It’s a marker of a new era that embraces indigenous knowledge; ensures tribal leadership has a seat at the table; and demonstrates that by working together, we can build a brighter future for all of us. This new era did not come about on its own – it the culmination of decades and decades of advocacy from all of our communities and organizations like NCAI; a terrible pandemic that exposed the disparities that exist in our communities; a climate crisis that impacts everyone in the country; and the tragic events of last summer that forced our country to reckon with racial injustice. It’s a combination of events that pushes us to forge a new path. A new path that doesn’t accept the status quo, and instead leads us to build back better than before. We have a president, and an admiration, that is committed to forging that path.

As co-chair of the White House Council on Native American Affairs, I’m encouraged by the momentum I see. Cabinet members are making tangible progress at their agencies to address so many issues critical to our people. You’ve heard about many of those priorities today, including addressing the pandemic, climate change, and racial injustice; creating good jobs; and expanding access to sustainable energy, broadband internet, transportation, and clean water in indigenous communities.

I will say that the political appointees and career staff at all of our agencies are doing incredible work to build tribal consultation into their processes and decision making. It’s something that should’ve been done a long time ago, but I’m proud to say that under President Biden’s leadership we’re on a new and better path forward. President Biden is forging ahead on priorities that value and respect our indigenous knowledge to create a more sustainable future; ensure indigenous leadership has a seat at the table to make decisions about our communities; to make stronger investments in our communities through the bipartisan infrastructure deal and proposed budget; and give us opportunities to rise above the challenges our people face; and build a brighter future for our children, our grandchildren, and future generations.

At interior we believe that honoring our relationships with tribes and upholding the trust responsibility is paramount to fulfilling this department’s mission. For too long Indian issues were regulated only to the Indian affairs bureaus. We’re going to make sure that tribal communities thrive, that tribal sovereignty is respected and strengthened. And if we are to truly repair our nation to nation relationships, then that means every bureau, and every office, should be thinking about our country’s trust obligations to indigenous people. Interior contributes to this administration’s work to build back better through our work to center indigenous traditional knowledge in our climate work; through our missing and murdered unit, and implementation of the Not Invisible Act to address the missing and murdered indigenous peoples crisis; through our Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to help our communities heal from long-standing inter-generational trauma; and through restoring tribal homelands, many of which were lost during the federal boarding school era. Much of our work at interior centers around recognizing the painful pieces of our past so that we can learn, grow, and do better. For indigenous communities that means acknowledging and raising national awareness about the harmful and often violent portions of our country’s history that contribute to the challenges we face today.

[The] missing and murdered indigenous peoples crisis is deeply personal to me, as I know it is for so many of you. For too long this issue had been swept under the rug by our government, with a lack of urgency and attention. We are taking important steps to change that. In August, interior and the department of justice opened the nomination process for our not Invisible Act task force. And I want to thank all of you for helping the department find a qualified pool of candidates with diverse experiences to help perform our work as we move ahead on this critical piece that will help ensure our people no longer go missing without a trace.

At the NCAI conference in June, I accounted the launch of the Federal Boarding School Initiative. It was the beginning of a national conversation; conversation that was long overdue. Our communities have carried, and continue to carry, the traumas of our aunts and uncles, grandparents and relatives who were taken from us; who lost a part of their culture; and many who may not have made it home. But now we have the attention of the entire country. This attention has not been without trauma. It’s not easy to share our stories and read the stories of our relatives in major news outlets. I wish we didn’t have to go through this – I wish that our children were never taken away in the first place. However, like our ancestors we know that the sacrifices we make today are not just for ourselves – they’re for the generations who will come after us. The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative that I launched at the NCAI conference in June will begin the long healing process that our country must address in order to build a future what we can all be proud to embrace.

Tribal consultations are at the core of these long and painful processes to address the intergenerational trauma of Indian boarding schools and to shed light on the truth in a way that honors those who have lost and those that continued to suffer. Two weeks ago the interior announced it would begin tribal consultations as the next step of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. The feedback we get from these consultations will lay the foundation for the department’s report on this effort, and for future site work to protect potential burial sites and other sensitive information. As we speak, agency staff are compiling decades of files and records to facilitate a proper review to organize documents, identify available and missing information, and ensure that record systems are standardized. The department is also building a framework for how it will partner with outside organizations to guide the next steps of review.

My heart breaks each time I read a new account, or hear a new story about how our children stuffer. This type of heartbreak can take a toll on the body and in the mind. Our communities will need more support as we go through this collective trauma together. The interior is working with the Indian heath service to develop culturally appropriate support resources for those who feel the weight of trauma resulting from the boarding school initiative. We are here for all of you, and your communities, as we go through this painful process.

More generally, I want you to know that you will always have an ally in me. My team and I are committed to working with all of you so that we can build a better future for our children and our children’s children. And yes, I know that all these are lofty goals, but I truly believe that together we can meet the moment.

Thank you all so much again for having me, I pray that your community stays safe as we continue to weather this pandemic. Please get vaccinated, and with that I’ll ask our esteemed and Harding working assistant secretary Brian Newland to join me on the screen so that we can open up for questions.

Haaland, D. [Indianz]. (2021, October 12) Secretary Deb Haaland at National Congress of American Indians #NCAIAnnual21 []. Retrieved on February 4, 2022 from