Last week, in Haaland’s first television interview, conducted by CBS, she spoke of the way Indian Country has been taken advantage of by extractive interests, saying, “Often, it’s been easy to take land away to drill and mine in sacred places.” The temporary pause will, potentially, allow for her and other Cabinet heads to put in place new, more stringent regulations on how non-Native companies operate on tribal lands. (She has not publicly mentioned any specific changes yet, telling reporters last Friday only that “the American taxpayers deserve to have a return on their investment.”)
One of those solutions that the Biden administration has thus far not moved or signaled a move on is Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Whereas the current model requires only consultation (a box to be checked in most instances), FPIC would require the sign-off of the tribal nation’s government before any new developments proceeded—something that tribal leaders have pressed the Biden administration’s Interior about in its first few months in office. However, while tribes wait for the administration’s position on FPIC, Haaland has already made moves to create a Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services, which will lead and coordinate cross-department and interagency work regarding missing and murdered Indigenous citizens—a crucial endeavor given the crisis coincides often with the transient workforces of extractive companies.
Following the line between wonky Interior policies like FPIC and the on-the-ground effects of fossil fuel extraction can be difficult. But doing so is crucial, because despite what industry stalwarts keep claiming, the consequences of extractive practices from mining to fracking remain a clear danger to communities now and for years to come. As I wrote ahead of Haaland’s confirmation, she will not leave this office having rid Indian Country of all the exploitative industry practices that companies have spent decades codifying into federal law. She even acknowledged this in broad terms when speaking with CBS, admitting that she knows “the fossil fuel industry will continue for years to come.” But Haaland is also on the record having recognized that if America is to properly steward its lands and waters, the federal government cannot continue helping the fossil fuel industry plunder its lands.
Haaland’s Interior now stands at an intersection unlike any faced by previous Interiors. Here we have a Native official in the federal government, from a fracking-heavy state, who throughout her career has made it clear that she has the ability to grasp the economic, cultural, and political forces that define these issues and still produce answers that center tribal sovereignty and the well-being of people and nature alike. There are Capitol and Indian Country politics that may well limit the progress this Interior can achieve. But having someone in charge who gets it—well, that’s a start.