Secretary Haaland: 2021 a year of challenges and triumphs for Indian country

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As we emerge from the final days of another unforgettable year, it is important to learn from what we have been through and reflect on the road ahead. For Indigenous peoples, this year has brought so much promise – and there is no turning back.

It is undeniable that this year has been filled with considerable challenges. Historic drought and fires, a global pandemic and a worsening climate crisis necessitate an urgency that sometimes seems to fall flat among elected officials. Yet, as our people have done from time immemorial, we persevere.

I say this often, but I truly believe that we are in a new era for indigenous peoples.

Leadership matters. President Biden has pledged to strengthen the federal government’s nation-to-nation relationships with Native American and Alaska Native communities. Under his leadership, our administration immediately began working with tribes to provide COVID-19 economic relief through the U.S. Rescue Plan and distribute vaccines to keep Indigenous families, elders, and communities safe. This has helped close gaps in access to vital resources that have disproportionately afflicted indigenous communities.

We have stepped forward to address the legacy and intergenerational trauma that hurts our people. I launched the Department of the Interior’s Missing and Murderer Unit to bring the full weight of the federal government to the investigation of these cases and the mobilization of law enforcement resources in federal agencies and in the whole Indian country.

When everyone’s eyes were on the tragic discoveries of unmarked graves of residential school children, we launched the Federal Residential Schools Initiative to shed light on the truth of what happened in these places and pave the way for healing. Since then, the Department of the Interior has consulted with the tribes and is working together to manage feedback to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

This work often takes a toll on our hearts and forces us to relive the trauma we carry. To help with this, the Department is working with the Indian Health Service to develop culturally appropriate support resources for Indigenous communities.

Yet as we continue to heal from the most traumatic parts of our history, we cannot forget the joy we feel knowing that our ancestral homelands and traditions will be protected for generations to come.

I stood on the White House lawn alongside President Biden this summer when he fully restored the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. I felt the weight of that moment and remembered the many times I felt the presence of our ancestors in those canyons. It was the same feeling I felt under blue skies and among the stones that ancestors carefully placed with their own hands as tribal leaders celebrated our proposals for protection for Chaco Canyon.

It was one of many announcements made at the White House Tribal Nations Summit — the first in four long years and the embodiment of our administration’s commitment to working with tribes. We have also launched efforts to revitalize Indigenous languages, uphold treaty rights and strengthen tribal co-management. The discussions and feedback we received at the summit will help ensure that the policies we create reflect the needs of Indigenous communities in the years to come.

As we look to the future, we are facilitating the distribution of billions of dollars to Indigenous communities through bipartisan infrastructure law, the biggest investment in the resilience of our physical and natural systems. These transformational investments will build on the achievements we made in 2021 and set us up for even more progress in 2022.

I stand here on the shoulders of ancestors who laid a clear path before me. The whole Indian country has my commitment to ensure that future generations have every opportunity to realize their dreams and that one day they will stand on my shoulders to achieve more than we can even dream of.

*Deb Haaland is Secretary of the Interior and made history as the first Native American cabinet secretary. She is a member of the Laguna Tribe in New Mexico.

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