Indian court, Federal Building, Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939 From an Indian painting on elkskin, Great Plains / / SiegriesDecember 19, 2020
“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters,” wrote Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Trump and the Republicans are fighting tooth and nail to retain their hold on power, while President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris are quietly trying to move forward.
There are monsters, indeed. Today, New York Times journalists Maggie Haberman and Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported that Trump held a long meeting at the White House yesterday with his lawyer Rudy Giuliani; disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whom Trump recently pardoned for lying to the FBI; and Flynn’s lawyer Sidney Powell. These four are the heart of those insisting — without evidence — that Trump won the 2020 election. They have talked of Trump declaring martial law and holding new elections. In the meeting, Trump apparently asked about appointing Powell as special counsel to investigate voter fraud in the 2020 election.
White House advisers in the room, including White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, pushed back strongly, noting that Powell has yet to prove any of her accusations. Axios journalist Jonathan Swan reported that senior Trump officials think Trump is spending too much time with crackpots who are egging him on to seize power. One told Swan: when Trump is “retweeting threats of putting politicians in jail, and spends his time talking to conspiracy nuts who openly say declaring martial law is no big deal, it’s impossible not to start getting anxious about how this ends.”
The country is increasingly ravaged by the pandemic. Friday saw more than 250,000 new infections in a single day. More than 315,000 have died, including 3,611 on Wednesday. More than 128,000 Americans have received the vaccine.
The economy is in recession, but yesterday, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) objected to one-time federal payments of $1200 because he says he’s worried about the deficit. Democrats noted that the Trump administration’s tax cuts for the wealthy and military spending added a projected $4 trillion to the deficit by 2026. Then, just as it seemed both sides had come to an agreement over a coronavirus relief bill, the Republicans scuttled it with a new demand that would rein in the ability of the Federal Reserve to combat the recession. This would take from Biden a key tool. The Republicans seem to be doing their best to undercut the Biden administration so they can regain power in 2022 and 2024.
(Just before midnight tonight, the Senate appears to have reached a compromise. Details are not yet available).
This week, the United States learned of a massive hack on our government and business sector. Intelligence agents as well as Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, say Russia is behind the attack. Once again, though, Trump refuses to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin. He claimed that the attack wasn’t as bad as the “Fake News Media” says it is, and he suggested the culprit could have been China, rather than Russia. Then, once again, he insisted he won the election.
And yet, if the Trump administration models an assault on our country by a group of oligarchs determined to seize power, the incoming Biden administration is signaling that it takes seriously our future as a true multicultural democracy.
Nothing signals that more than the nomination of Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) as Secretary of the Interior Department. Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo people who have lived in the land that is now New Mexico for 35 generations. She is the daughter of two military veterans. A single mother who earned a law degree with a young daughter in tow, she was a tribal leader focused on environmentally responsible economic development for the Lagunas before she became a Democratic leader.
Her nomination for Interior carries with it deep symbolism. If confirmed, Haaland will be the first Native American Cabinet secretary and will head the department that, in the nineteenth century, destroyed Indigenous peoples for political leverage.
The United States government initially put management of Indian affairs into the War Department but, in 1849, transferred the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the newly created Department of the Interior. Reformers hoped that putting Indian relations under the control of civilians, rather than military, would lead to fewer wars. But the move opened the way for indigenous people to be swept up in a political system over which they had no control.
In the nineteenth century, as settlers pushed into Indigenous territory, the government took control of that land through treaties that promised the tribes food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and usually the tools and seeds to become farmers. As well, tribal members usually received a yearly payment of cash. These distributions of goods and money were not payment for the land. They were the terms of the deal. If tribes were to give up the lands on which they depended to survive, their people needed a replacement for their livelihoods.
But here’s where politics came in. Tribes moved onto the reservations, either willingly or by force. In the nineteenth century, those reservations were often large tracts of land. To pick up their food and so on, the Indigenous people would go once or twice a month to the agency, essentially a town on the reservation, usually with a school, a doctor, warehouses, and stores. The agency grew up around the man in charge of the agency: the agent.
With Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior, the agents were political appointees. The U.S. senators of the state in which the reservation was located made their choices and told the president, who then made the appointment. While some of the agents actually tried to do their job, most were put into office to advance the interests of the political party in power. So, they took the money Congress appropriated for the tribe they oversaw, then gave the contracts for the beef, flour, clothing, blankets, and so on, to cronies, who would fulfill the contracts with moldy food and rags, if they bothered to fulfill them at all. They would pocket the rest of the money, using it to help keep their political party in power and themselves in the position of agent.
When tribal leaders complained, lawmakers pointed out — usually quite correctly — that they had appropriated the money required under the treaties. But the system had essentially become a slush fund, and the tribes had no recourse against the corrupt agents except, when they were starving, to go to war. Then the agents called in the troops. Democrat Grover Cleveland tried to clean up the system (not least because it was feeding the Republicans so much money) in 1885-1889, but as soon as Republican Benjamin Harrison took the White House back, he jump-started the old system again.
The corruption was so bad by then that military leaders tried to take the management of Indian Affairs away from the politicians at the Interior Department, furious that politicians caused trouble with the tribes and then soldiers and unoffending Indians died. It looked briefly as if they might manage to do so until the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 ended any illusions that military management would be a better deal for Native Americans than political management.
The Interior Department today manages our natural resources as well as the government’s relationship with Indigenous tribes. Placing Haaland at the head of it is more than simply promoting diversity in government. It is a recognition of 170 years of American history and the perversion of our principles by men who lusted for power. It is a sign that we are finally trying to use the government for the good of everyone.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland tweeted after the announcement. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
A new world struggles to be born.
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