Interior to reverse key Indian Affairs policy in place since 1975
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Thursday announced she will reverse a 1975 policy giving the Bureau of Indian Affairs final authority over tribal water plans.
In the 1975 memo, then-Secretary Rogers Morton gave Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendents and local authorities veto power over any new ordinances or codes regulating tribal water use. In the announcement, Haaland described the memo as an unnecessary extra procedural hurdle that has created decades of confusion in relations between tribes and the federal government.
The majority of tribal constitutions include no requirement for secretarial approval, and those that do still have the option to amend them to remove those requirements.
“If we are to truly support Tribal self-determination, we cannot be afraid to review and correct actions of the past that were designed to create obstacles for Tribal nations. The ‘Morton moratorium’ is inconsistent with the Department’s commitment to upholding Tribal self-determination and the federal trust responsibility to support Tribal sovereignty,” Haaland said in a statement. “Today’s action underscores our efforts to move forward in this new era.”
Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, has taken a number of actions since her confirmation to strengthen tribal sovereignty and address the history of U.S.-tribal relations. In February, she announced the agency would use funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law to pay out $1.7 billon in water rights settlements to tribes.
“Water is a sacred resource, and water rights are crucial to ensuring the health, safety and empowerment of Tribal communities,” she said.
Haaland has also announced an ongoing investigation into the federal boarding schools that Native American children, including her grandfather, were forced to attend in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Meanwhile, following a four-year period that saw 16 deaths of Indigenous people in custody, the Bureau of Indian Affairs said in February that its Office of Justice Services will issue monthly briefings on investigations of any deaths.
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