A New Chapter in American History
We are witness to an historic milestone for women, for indigenous people, and for our nation as a whole. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Congresswoman and member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation, has been confirmed to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior. Haaland is not only the first indigenous person to serve as a Cabinet secretary, but she now leads a government agency with a history tarnished by failure to protect indigenous lands, culture, and families.
Haaland’s personal heritage and career experience equip her to lead the Department in wise stewardship and preservation of our lands at a time when our nation is focused on racial, socio-cultural and environmental justice as well as devastating climate change impacts.
In 2018 Haaland was one of the first two Native American women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Her prior roles included vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples, and chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands.
The Interior Department oversees 500 million acres of land and more than one billion acres offshore. Among the various bureaus managed by the Interior is the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has administrative authority over 55 Million acres of land held in trust by the U.S. government for use by Native Americans.
Here in California, we continue to grapple with the multi-generational impact of historic discrimination, dislocation, enslavement and genocide of indigenous peoples that persisted for more than two centuries of colonization and domination by Spain, Mexico, and our own federal and state governments.
California’s indigenous peoples dwelled here for tens of thousands of years before European exploration and settlement. Their population, their inhabitance and stewardship of the land and their cultural heritage was devastated by the impact of colonization. For too many years, indigenous peoples were robbed of their ancestral lands, and the right to claim ownership of any land at all, and their voting rights were not protected.
According to the U.S. Census, we know that California is home to nearly 760,000 Native Americans—more than any other state from coast to coast. It wasn’t until 1890 that America’s indigenous peoples were counted in the U.S. Census, however, the Census Bureau estimates that they were undercounted by nearly five percent. And it wasn’t until 1980 that U.S. residents were allowed to indicate their race.
There are about 574 federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S., but many more tribes, including tribes in our own region such as the Amah Mutsun, are still working to attain recognition. In February 2021, the Department of the Interior announced efforts to work with tribal leaders to ensure future efforts to address the pandemic, economic security, racial justice and climate change are inclusive of Tribal Nations’ priorities and recommendations.
In 2019, Governor Newsom issued an apology to California’s Native Americans through executive order on behalf of the State of California. He also established the Truth and Healing Council, led by Native Californians, providing a platform for indigenous peoples to clarify their perspective on the historical record and collaborate with the state to begin the healing process.
We owe it to present and future generations to acknowledge Native American history, to support leaders like Deb Haaland, and to lift up the stories of Native Californians right here in our communities.
We invite you to watch our “Stories from the Past” documentary (2019) to hear firsthand accounts from Val Lopez, Amah Mutsun Tribal Chair, and learn more about the indigenous heritage of South Santa Clara Valley, the land we call home.