I don’t think I can do justice to the significance of President-Elect Joe Biden choosing a Native American to head the Department of the Interior. In selecting Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, an enrolled Laguna Pueblo member, as the next Secretary of the Interior Biden has done something that was completely unthinkable throughout the entirety of our country’s history up to now.
The Department was created in 1849, spurred on by all by the new land acquired in the Mexican-American War and the Gold Rush in California. It houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was established independently in 1824 by none other than John Calhoun, the arch-conservative theorist and defender of American slavery. The Bureau then set about removing Native Nations from the East, including most famously the Cherokee.
Beginning in the 1890’s, the Bureau worked aggressively to assimilate Natives, in part by prohibiting the use of their languages or the practice of their religions. In the 1970’s, the Bureau worked as an arm of the domestic surveillance state to suppress the American Indian Movement.
Today, roughly a fifth of the land in the country in under Interior’s management, including most of the territory controlled by Natives in the early 19th-Century.
Early white settlers looked for protection against “Indian” attacks from the army, and eventually from the law as administered by Interior bureaucrats. The history of the settling of the West is really inseparable from how the federal government interacted from a position of strength with Native adversaries. Aside from the occasional sop, like the 1869 appointment of Ely Samuel Parker as commissioner of Indian affairs, the Interior Department has an uninterrupted history as the organ of settler power over Natives.
It would have been incomprehensible to the white settlers of the West to have a Native in charge of the department, and it probably remains incompressible to many of the white citizens of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana today.
I don’t often approach politics from the perspective of identity, partly because I’m a white man and partly because it doesn’t fit my strategic sense of how to gain and maintain power in contemporary America. But, in this case, it’s very clearly Haaland’s cultural heritage that makes this pick so earth-shifting.
I don’t know how she’ll run Interior, and I’m not recommending her or not recommending her for the job of managing a major federal cabinet department. I know she’ll bring a different perspective, and I know it’s not a welcome perspective for a lot of folks because it’s never been a welcome perspective in this country.
I guess what I’m saying is that Haaland’s nomination is a big deal. It’s amazing that it has happened at all. It’s another sign that the settlers are losing their grip on America’s levers of power. And, man, are they howling!