President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Rep. Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, as the next head of the Department of the Interior, which houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). As anthropologist Valerie Lambert, an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation who has worked for the BIA, explains, the role of Native Americans as government employees has helped reshape the bureau’s relationship with Native nations in recent decades.
The BIA, first known as the Office of Indian Affairs, got its start in 1824 as part of the War Department. For more than a century, it was part of assaults on Native American people, from the banning of ceremonial dances to the forceable placement of children in boarding schools. Lambert writes that in her field research and during her own childhood, she heard stories from many Native American people describing the BIA as a hostile force. One recalled attending a BIA boarding school in the 1940s, where she and her fellow Choctaw classmates were forbidden from using the only language they knew, even while playing in the schoolyard. Others explained how, around the same time, BIA agents denied them access to the money in their “Individual Indian Money” accounts, which were controlled by the bureau.
In some cases, Lambert writes, Native people have responded to the actions of the BIA with overt opposition, as in a 1972 occupation of its headquarters. But other times, tribes have strategically worked with it.
“The BIA is a great resource, if you know how to use ’em,” as Larry Calica, secretary-treasurer of the Warm Springs Tribe in Oregon, put it.
Part of the potential for alliances between tribes and the BIA springs from its employment of Native Americans. In 1834, the government began officially giving Native American people preference in hiring for the office. But prejudice continued to keep it majority non-Native until the 1970s. As one Choctaw man who worked for the BIA in the 1940s told Lambert, non-Native white administrators claimed they were more “neutral,” while Native American employees were “prejudiced in favor of Indians.”
But by 2010, 95 percent of BIA workers were Native Americans.
Along with providing programs and services to Indian tribes and managing land that the U.S. holds in trust for Native people, the BIA is responsible for determining which tribes the federal government recognizes. Lambert writes that some people—particularly non-Native people who consider themselves allies to Native Americans—view the recognition of tribes as an inappropriate role for the federal government. But, she writes, many Native Americans see this recognition as critical for the status of tribes as distinct political entities.
“From this perspective, efforts by non-Indians to water down the criteria or undermine the government’s authority to recognize Indian tribes are efforts to erode the political status of our tribes as sovereign nations,” she writes.
The relationship of tribes with the BIA is still often deeply contentious, Lambert writes, but it’s more complex than it may appear at first.