Bryan Newland and Deb Haaland
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland ceremonially swears in Bryan Newland to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior on September 8, 2021. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior
In Historic Statement, BIA Pledges to Safeguard Indigenous Individuals’ Rights
Tuesday, January 25, 2022

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Galanda Broadman law firm.

A weekend USA Today news feature regarding the United States’ recent intercession in the Nooksack housing rights calamity [PDF] includes the following historic statement from the Bureau of Indian Affairs:

The federal government must protect the rights of individuals under federal law, including the Indian Civil Rights Act… BIA respects tribal sovereignty and supports tribal self-determination. Accordingly, we seek to work closely with our tribal partners to safeguard the rights of both tribes and individuals.

The BIA’s statement marks the second time the Biden administration has professed a commitment to protecting Indigenous individuals’ human rights from violation by Tribal governments, and a break from modern administrations that focused almost exclusively on supporting Tribal self-determination rights.

USA Today also highlights HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge’s October statement encouraging four Oklahoma tribes to accept descendants of Freedmen who once had been enslaved by the tribes. Secretary Fudge consulted with Interior before making that statement.

Neither statement would have been issued without the guidance and support of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland or Assistant Secretary—Indian Affairs Bryan Newland. Indigenous representation does matter.

Both the BIA and HUD statements represent historic commitments by the United States to protect Indigenous individuals from domestic human rights abuse by Tribal governments. Both statements reflect the Trustee’s common-law moral trust responsibility to Tribal citizens and descendants. Both statements recognize that in the context of Indigenous human rights, Tribal sovereignty and self-determination are not absolute.

As explained by USA Today:

Galanda, a Seattle lawyer and member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California, said earlier Supreme Court decisions call for federal intervention under a “moral trust responsibility.”

“The tension lies between tribal self-determination and Indigenous human rights protection in the form of federal diplomatic intercession,” he said. “I think there have to be scenarios in which the Indigenous human rights violation is so atrocious and so threatening to an Indigenous community’s existence that the (U.S. government) must exercise its moral trust responsibility.”

I wholeheartedly applaud the Biden administration, particularly Secretary Haaland and ASIA Newland, for boldly professing a commitment to safeguard Indigenous individuals’ human rights.


Gabe Galanda is an Indigenous rights attorney and the managing lawyer at Galanda Broadman in Seattle. He belongs to the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California, descending from the Nomlaki and Concow Peoples.