SOVEREIGN NATIONS: U.S. Indian Affairs official speaks of Indigenous students, issues they face

Oct. 29—GRAND RAPIDS — Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland returned to his home state to speak on issues Indigenous students face in higher education.

On Thursday evening, an intimate group of students, staff, and community members gathered at Grand Valley State University to listen to Newland at the event facilitated by the office of multicultural affairs and the Native American Student Association.

"It's always great to come home — 'homeish,'" Newland said, "I come from a community five hours north of here, but it is really good to be back here in Michigan."

Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwe), was appointed to his position in the DOI in 2021 after he completed his tenure as tribal president for BMIC. Prior to that, he served as chief judge of the Bay Mills Tribal Court and as a Counselor and Policy Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of the Interior.

"It's a privilege to serve in this position," Newland said. He told the audience that a big part of his job has been to meet with sovereign nations across Indian Country to address the history of the BIA, which he said was historically referred to as "Bopping Indians Around."

The BIA, along with the Bureau of Indian Education and Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, are obligated under law to fulfill United States' trust responsibilities to Native American and Alaska Native nations and individuals.

Newland spoke of the dark history that follows the department that oversaw policies such as Residential Boarding Schools, the Dawes Act, which allowed the government to break up reservation land to be sold to non-Natives, and the 1960's "scoops" that disproportionately took Native children from their homes and placed them into foster care.

Newland leads the Federal Boarding School Initiative under Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo), that recently made their third stop on their year-long "The Road to Healing" Tour to listen and gather federal testimony from survivors and descendants.

He said it is only in his lifetime that the presidential administration has repudiated these policies. "We're in a new era, for federal Indian law and Indian policy."

According to Newland, the Biden administration is embracing this new era by ensuring that sovereign nations can govern themselves and continue to exist as tribes.

"Our view is that the trust responsibility means that we have to work in partnership with tribes, not to destroy the tribal way of life, but to revitalize it," Newland said.

There are a lot of challenges that Indian Country faces, but he pointed out that policies, such as the Indian Self-Determination Act, have been successful because Native Americans can govern themselves.

Newland addressed that many rights obtained under many acts are "under attack in federal courts," he said, "by people who question the constitutionality of the federal government and the power of American Indian tribes to protect their continued existence."

He pointed out that ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act), which gives tribal governments exclusive jurisdiction over the removal of Native American children from their families in custody, foster care and adoption cases, is being challenged in the Supreme Court.

Newland said the administration believes there is an obligation as a federal government to use these legal powers to "remake, restore and revitalize the tribal way of life, in partnership with the tribes."

A part of the revitalization of Indian Country means investing in sovereign nations with water and infrastructure, housing, education support, and pursuing regulation changes to make it easier for federally recognized tribes to put land into trust, Newland said.

Lin Bardwell, citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, and the Native American Student Initiative Coordinator for the office of multicultural affairs, said the facilitation was important to give students, and community members, the opportunity to meet with Newland firsthand to address concerns they have in Indian Country.

"When Native American obtain these positions, they come with thousands of years of ancestral knowledge backed behind them," Bardwell pointed out.

"We are asking to be visible," she said.

Report for America corps member Sierra Clark's reporting is made possible by a partnership between the Record-Eagle and Report for America, a journalism service project founded by the nonprofit Ground Truth Project. Generous community support helps fund a local share of the Record-Eagle/RFA partnership. To support RFA reporters in Traverse City, go to www.record-eagle.com/rfa.