There’s a saying in Indian Country: either you are at the table, or you are on the menu.
Appointments by the Biden administration now in the works would put American Indian and Alaska Native people very much at the table, including posts where Native people have never before served, with enormous influence over lands and waters and environmental policy across the U.S.
The appointments, some already made and others under consideration, are a redemptive moment for federal agencies that in the past terminated the federal relationship with tribes, destroyed tribal fisheries and worked hard to eliminate tribal cultures.
The biggest appointment, still to be confirmed by Congress, is that of U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, of New Mexico and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, to serve as secretary of the Department of the Interior. Other appointments include Robert Anderson, who would be one of Haaland’s top lawyers, and Jaime Pinkham, a Nez Perce tribal member, to a top post at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
David Z. Bean, council member for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, an important donor in federal and state elections, called the appointments “both historic and exciting. It is going to change the conversation, and right the wrong of so many wrongs through the years.”
While they run their own governments and nations, tribes care deeply about the partners they work with at every level of government.
That is because the exercise of tribal sovereignty and even the most fundamental aspects of protecting and continuing their way of life depend on productive government-to-government relationships.
Haaland’s potential confirmation holds significant promise, Bean said.
“With her historic and eventual confirmation, she will be the first Native American to head an agency that had one time charged itself with the destruction of our people,” Bean said.
During the so-called Termination Era from 1953 to 1969, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under the Department of Interior, oversaw the termination of federal relations with more than 100 tribal governments across the country, and the relocation of tribal members from their communities and reservations to live in cities, including Seattle.
Earlier, beginning in the 1870s, Indian children were also taken from their families and sent to boarding schools whose mission under U.S. federal policy was to destroy their tribal culture. The legacy of trauma inflicted by the schools, some of which operated under what would become known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, continues today.
Indian leaders who grew up hearing their parents’ and elders’ stories honor what their elders survived, and the changes underway today.
“My dad and so many elders literally went through blood, sweat and tears to fight for who we are,” said Willie Frank Jr. III, a Nisqually tribal council member. He is the son of Billy Frank Jr., a nationally celebrated treaty rights activist jailed dozens of times for his defense of tribal treaty fishing rights.
A statue of his father, who died in 2014, is now under consideration by state lawmakers to replace missionary Marcus Whitman as one of two statues representing Washington state in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.
Meanwhile, other native leaders around the region also are being tapped for important appointments.
Anderson would be one of Haaland’s top lawyers if she is confirmed. He has been appointed principal deputy solicitor at the Department of Interior.
He is enrolled in the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and taught at the University of Washington School of Law and directed its Native American Law Center for the past 20 years. He also for more than a decade has been a visiting professor at the Harvard Law School.
Pinkham, a Nez Perce tribal member and treaty fishing rights champion as executive director of the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, has been invited by the Biden Administration to serve a primary deputy secretary for civil works at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps has significant impact nationwide on the lands and particularly the waters of the U.S., including jurisdiction over permitting for pipelines, construction in wetlands, and the operation, maintenance and construction of dams.
Pinkham’s appointment comes as Congressman Mike Simpson, a Republican of Idaho has put forward a massive proposal for removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River and replacement of their benefits for river users, as part of a federal fisheries restoration, energy and transportation package in the Northwest.
For Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce tribe, Pinkham’s appointment is a matter of pride and opportunity to have someone in such an important position at such an important time. Pinkham already understands tribal treaty fishing rights and the federal relationship with tribes, Wheeler said.
“I am really smiling a lot right now,” Wheeler said. “He brings a lot to the table and a wealth of knowledge. Definitely, native nations are abuzz right now.
“We are at a critical juncture. Sometimes, that is how the Creator works,” Wheeler said, with the right person in the right time in the right place when change needs to occur. “Not everyone will see it that way, but we as Nez Perce do,” Wheeler said.
Pinkham earned praise far beyond tribal circles from his years of work both as an elected official at Nez Perce, at the fish commission, and working at a foundation and on the boards of nonprofits.
Elliot Mainzer, former administrator at the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), praised Pinkham as someone good at seeking solutions even in very contentious issues. The two worked together on negotiations for a 2018 agreement governing the spill of water over dams to benefit salmon in their migration to the sea.
“We called this carrying water for each other,” Mainzer said. “Jaime was just a great partner during my time at BPA. He has such a unique skill set and background, he is such a great collaborator.”
The appointment is a good sign for the region, said Mainzer, who is now the CEO for the California Independent System Operator, which manages and markets power sold to the Western grid. “I think this signals a genuine willingness of people to sit down at the table and listen to each other in different ways to think long-term for the good of the region.”
W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, said the appointments are no accident. Indian leaders have been very clear they want the Biden Administration to put Native people in high-level jobs and especially where they were not typically, or even ever held by Native people.
Allen noted the advancement in consideration of Debra Lekanoff, an Aleut-Tlingit Native and Democratic representative from the 40th District, for director of Region 10 for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Region 10 director has jurisdiction over environmental affairs in a vast region of the Northwest, encompassing the states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and 271 tribal nations.
If appointed, Lekanoff would be the first Native American to hold the post.
In addition to her service in the Legislature, Lekanoff has decades of experience working with local, state, and federal governments as the intergovernmental affairs director for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
That is the kind of track record that is delivering so many qualified Native candidates for top positions, Allen said.
Pinkham, for instance, at 64, has built a diverse career, starting out in forestry. He got his first look at politics on the days he took off his boots and suspenders to serve as an intern for state lawmakers, while employed in forestry by the state Department of Natural Resources.
Pinkham went on from forestry jobs first at DNR and then the Bureua of Indian Affairs to managing natural resources for the Nez Perce Tribe and serving as treasurer elected to the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. He also worked at a private foundation to strengthen native governance at tribes in North and South Dakota and Minnesota, in addition to serving on the boards of multiple non-profits.
For all his professional success, and now with a move coming to Washington D.C., Pinkham said he always knows where home is: with his family, in his cabin on the reservation; at elk camp, or, he said with pride, “sitting at a round drum, singing the old songs, in the old ways.”