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Eastern Band Of Cherokee Chief On Having Native American Interior Secretary: 'Finally We Have One Of Our Own In There'

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears, in Utah this week.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears, in Utah this week.

Former Congresswoman Deb Haaland’s confirmation last month as the country’s first Native American Secretary of the Interior and first Cabinet member is seen as a turning point in the country’s relationship with tribal nations. Haaland, a citizen of New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo Nation, often criticized how the Trump administration addressed Native American issues.

Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, says Haaland’s appointment is a major victory for Native Americans because she understands firsthand the issues they face.

Principal Chief Richard Sneed
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
Principal Chief Richard Sneed

Chief Richard Sneed: Having somebody as the secretary who is a tribal citizen, who understands the issues facing Indian country was very gratifying for all tribal nations. It's very frustrating to have to try to explain to folks the issues that tribal nations face.

Finally, we have one of our own in there who understands the issues that we face. And we don't have to explain our position and why we are asking for the things that we're asking for.

Gwendolyn Glenn: And in looking at past secretaries of the Department of Interior, which oversees Native American lands as well as other public lands, what kind of difference do you think she can make — will make — compared to other administrations?

Sneed: Well, I think what's most important for your listeners to understand is that tribal nations are sovereign nations within the United States. And when there are administrations that come in that No. 1, don't understand that; and worse, No. 2, don't respect that, then it creates a lot of tension and turmoil. She understands tribal sovereignty and how that is really the preeminent objective for all tribes — is for that sovereignty to be respected.

Glenn: Now, do you have any issues in terms of treaties, in terms of lands that need to be resolved or that you would like to see the new secretary focus on?

Sneed: You know, we are already in litigation on a treaty issue. So without going too much into that, because it is in litigation at this point, it's in the hands of the court.

Glenn: Are you referring to the land issue with the Catawbas?

Sneed: That's correct. Yes. There was a treaty, I think it was 1777. The Cherokees ceded that land to the state of North Carolina. Anyway, that's in litigation. So we'll wait to see what the outcome is from the court.

Glenn: Well, since you mentioned that, one thing that I do recall reading that the Cherokees had said that their issue was with the Department of Interior by letting the Catawbas, who are in Rock Hill, South Carolina, go forward with building a casino on that tract of land that's in North Carolina. So that's why I'm wondering — how are you hoping the Department of Interior will focus on this?

Sneed: Our complaint is that the Department of Interior acted outside of its scope of authority when they have a 1993 settlement agreement, which is an act of Congress that says that they're a South Carolina tribe. Any gaming activity shall be negotiated with the governor of South Carolina, et cetera. So we're simply asking that the existing act of Congress be adhered to.

Glenn: Do you know her and have you talked with her since her confirmation?

Sneed: I have not spoken with her since her confirmation. But, yes, we have met personally. In fact, she came to Cherokee before when she was running for Congress, before she was ever even elected. Because we were hosting the USET annual conference, which is the United South and Eastern Tribes. And she came and joined us and garnered a lot of support at that meeting.

Glenn: The Cherokees in North Carolina are in so much better shape in terms of health care, in terms of your language, in terms of the pandemic and having the vaccine. If she was sitting in front of you now and asked you, "What are some of your concerns? What would you like me to focus on that would help the Cherokees of North Carolina?" what would you say?

Sneed: My focus really would be for land into trust. You know, that that is a process, that it's arduous, it's time consuming, it's costly, and it shouldn't take that long to take land into trust. It's very discouraging when I receive a letter that says you were at step eight of the 16-step process on an application that's been in for years, you know, for things such as housing and economic development and historic preservation, which is the birthplace of the Cherokees. We've been trying to get that land into trust for years. It shouldn't take that long.

Moreover, Congress has the ability to federally recognize groups who claim native ancestry. Our position has always been the same. The Office of Federal Acknowledgment was created because it takes the politics out of it. The Office of Federal Acknowledgment has anthropologists and archeologists and genealogists who can do all the research to determine whether or not a group is claiming to be a historic tribe actually is.

It would be meaningful if that process was adhered to, if the secretary could at least take a position to say, "We, the federal government, employ all of these people in the Office of Federal Acknowledgement to ensure that those groups who are being recognized are actually historic tribes."

Because when I testified before Congress on this issue, I said, look, the Eastern Band is very fortunate to have the resources to come to Washington, D.C., to have our voice heard. I said, but I'm not here just speaking only on our behalf, but moreover, for those tribes that don't have the resources to come to present themselves to these committees and have their voice heard. They're the ones who will be negatively impacted if groups who are not historic tribes are added to the federal roll.

The resources are limited, and those groups that are being recognized — it should be determined that they are, in fact, historic tribes

Glenn: And I guess you are referring to the Lumbee.

Sneed: That's one group. And that's why I was in D.C. testifying on that. Our position has always been the same. The way has been made for them to go through the process and they can go through that process. To date, they had an application in which they withdrew and have decided to go the political route instead.

Principal Chief Richard Sneed of the Eastern Band of Cherokees of North Carolina. He is referring to the state’s Lumbee receiving support for federal recognition from President Biden, former President Trump, the state’s Republican senators and a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. Senatedidnot approve the designation.

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.