Last month, Deb Haaland made history as the first Indigenous person ever confirmed by the Senate to serve in a president's cabinet. In her first official trip as secretary of the Interior, she visited the Mountain West with a focus on tribal issues.
Haaland spent Tuesday in Albuquerque, hearing from leaders of nine Pueblo communities from across Northern New Mexico. She was welcomed by Wilfred Herrera, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors and a former governor of the Pueblo of Laguna, of which Haaland is a citizen.
"This is your birthplace. The lands that molded your identity, the lands that as a young girl nurtured your mind and your heart, that guides your passion today," Herrera said after an opening prayer. "We welcome you home as the honorable secretary of the Interior."
In her remarks, Haaland touted the unprecedented amount of relief funding – $20 billion – set aside for tribal governments in the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan, and said the administration is committed to upholding the federal government's trust and treaty responsibility to tribal nations.
"For too long, Indian issues were relegated only to the Indian Affairs bureaus," Haaland said. "If we are going to make sure that tribal communities thrive, that tribal sovereignty is respected and strengthened, and if we are truly to repair our nation-to-nation relationships, that means every bureau and every office must think about our country's trust obligations to Indian tribes."
Each of the Pueblo governors began their remarks to Haaland in their Native languages, offering prayers and words of support and gratitude. They brought a range of issues to the table, from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on their communities to healthcare funding and law enforcement challenges.
Gov. Jermone Lucero of the Zia Pueblo, who is also an officer with the Pueblo's police department, said the department's lack of jurisdiction over non-Natives on Zia land creates an acute threat to public safety.
"Last October I had a traffic stop of a non-Native. He had heroin in his vehicle with about 13 syringes," Lucero said.
But he lacked jurisdiction to arrest the man. And according to Lucero, both state and county law enforcement told him that they didn't have that authority, either.
"I had to put him in my unit, drive 17 miles down to Bernalillo and let him go," Lucero said. "When us Native Americans get off our reservation, [non-tribal law enforcement] has jurisdiction over us. And yet non-Natives, when they come on to our reservation, they cannot be prosecuted to the fullest extent."
Water and natural resource rights were a throughline in many governors' remarks. Sandia Pueblo Gov. Stuart Paisano said that the community's farmers and ranchers are in dire need of increased water resources.
"The BIA and the Bureau of Reclamation are not giving us a very good picture [...] due to climate change, of how much tougher it's going to get with regards to the snowpack and the runoff that goes into the reservoirs that translates into water for our communities," Paisano said. "It's becoming more and more difficult to work with federal partners [on water issues]."
Paisano also asked for Haaland's support in streamlining the process for transferring fee land, or privately-owned property within the boundaries of a reservation, into federal trust for the benefit of tribes.
Haaland's next stop is in Southeastern Utah. On Thursday, she will meet with tribes and other local stakeholders about the future of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments. The Interior Department was ordered by the Biden administration to reconsider the monuments' boundaries, which were rolled back significantly under President Trump.
Lieutenant Gov. Carleton Bowekaty of the Zuni Pueblo, which holds Bears Ears sacred, will be present during Haaland's visit. At Tuesday's event in Albuquerque he said that it will be a relief to work with a cultural insider on the issue.
"The difference between [you] and other secretaries is that you understand. You were born with this knowledge of what it means to be part of this earth," Bowekaty said. "You will see, and I hope to be able to show you, the deep connection that we understand and know as Pueblo people. But I don't have to work as hard, because you know that."
Haaland's visit presented tribal leaders with a rare opportunity to share their concerns directly with the secretary of the Interior, and came after four years during which many tribal leaders believe their interests were ignored by federal officials.
"I'm honored by your presence, I'm honored by your support," Haaland told the governors in closing. "Please know we intend to ensure that this is a new era for tribal consultation, for government-to-government relationships."
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.