Interior Minister Deb Haaland said Saturday that indigenous peoples have made progress during a visit to Alcatraz Island, which has become a symbol of the indigenous struggle for self-determination after its capture in the 1960s, but more remains to be done.
Haaland visited the island off the coast of San Francisco on the 52nd anniversary of the occupation by indigenous students who were demanding that the United States government recognize long-standing agreements with the tribes and hand over title to the island.
The group was removed after a 19-month occupation, but the seizure of power became a watershed moment in Native American activism.
“Alcatraz arose out of desperation,” said Haaland, who was accompanied by some of the dozens of people who occupied the island in 1969. With this in mind, we gained a sense of community and clarity in the eyes of the federal government. But more than that, our original identities have been restored.”
Thanks to the actions of these activists, Haaland, who is from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency, said that Native Americans no longer have to resort to extreme measures to have their voice heard.
“The fact that I’m standing here today is a testament to that fact. I’m here. We’re here. We’re not going anywhere,” she said.
Haaland highlighted the policies emerging from this week’s White House Tribal Nations Summit, which brought together President Joe Biden and leaders from more than 500 tribes in the United States, as an example of progress between tribes and the federal government.
The Tribal Nations Summit coincided with National Native American Heritage Month and for the first time was hosted by the White House. Biden ordered several Cabinet departments to work together to combat human trafficking and crime on Native American lands, and declared permanent protection for Bears Ears National Monument, which is sacred to Native Americans.
Halland said her department is also taking action to protect Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico, another Aboriginal holy site.
“We are in a new era. It is an era in which we can embrace our identities as indigenous peoples and be proud of what we have achieved.”
Native American tribes will also receive billions of dollars from the trillion-dollar infrastructure deal that Biden signed into law this week.
The funds will “support community resilience, replace aging infrastructure, and provide support for climate-related resettlement and adaptation,” she said.
Haaland said these actions alone will not solve the challenges indigenous people face and there is still much to be done, including building schools and infrastructure and tackling pollution and the effects of climate change on Native American communities.
“We have a long way to go to fully recover from the traumas caused by historical persecution,” she said.
She added, “I know that removing racist names, investing in broadband for tribal communities, and protecting indigenous languages won’t change everything. But change – even if it’s incremental – is still changing.”