- By Rob Capriccioso
- Economic Development
WASHINGTON — In a confirmation hearing that lasted just over an hour on June 9, Bryan Newland answered several questions before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in his quest to become the next Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“Go green!” chanted U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) during his introduction of the nominee, to which Newland responded with a quick, “Go white!” referencing their mutual appreciation of Michigan State University, where Newland graduated from both his undergraduate studies and from law school.
“Go blue!” said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), chairman of the committee, referencing his own father’s appreciation for MSU’s rival school, the University of Michigan. Schatz was born in Ann Arbor, Mich.
It wasn’t a total Great Lakes State lovefest at the hearing, however, as senators queried Newland on a bevy of questions that seemed both related to what he would be responsible for overseeing at Interior, if confirmed, but also ones that would have been better suited for officials in other agencies like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Newland stayed focused, ending his prepared remarks before a federal committee to serve in a high-ranking federal position with a note on why tribal sovereignty is of utmost importance to the decisions he would make at Interior.
“I believe that tribal governments, rather than federal agencies, are best-suited to respond to the challenges their communities face,” Newland testified. “Our job is to be a collaborative trustee and ensure that Indian Country drives our work. With your consent, I will be a leader for these important efforts.”
Newland was the elected chairperson of the Bay Mills Indian Community in the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan before President Joe Biden tapped him for the leadership position on Native American issues at Interior. As chairperson, he took strong positions in favor of Indian online gaming and tribal sports betting and lamented Indian policies and actions by Interior toward tribes under the Trump administration.
A practicing lawyer, he currently serves as principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, and he previously served as a policy adviser at Interior during the Obama administration. He also previously served as the chief judge at the Bay Mills tribal court.
In prepared remarks, Newland spoke in personal terms, noting his experiences growing up as being connected to the work he wants to perform at Interior as the boss of Indian Affairs.
“Growing up on our reservation, I saw how federal laws and policies affected the lives of everyday Indians,” he testified. “Commercial tribal fishermen exercised treaty-protected fishing rights to feed their families. I lived up the street from Bay Mills Community College — the first tribally-controlled community college in Michigan — which was established soon after Congress enacted the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act.”
He drew further on his personal story in explaining why he’s suited to the position, noting that his family lived in tribal housing, supported by federal grants.
“My parents were fortunate to each have jobs, which allowed them to get a land-lease to move out of tribal housing and purchase a home,” Newland continued. “We lived in a single-wide trailer for several years while they waited for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to approve their mortgage. When that mortgage was finally approved, my parents became the first people on the Bay Mills Reservation to have a mortgage-financed home. Their experience with the BIA’s time-consuming mortgage-approval process, and the delays that my parents faced as a part of it, would stick with me.”
He said his service during the Obama administration helped prepare him for the job at hand.
“We reformed leasing on Indian lands, putting timelines in place so that other families wouldn’t have the same delays my parents faced,” he said in his prepared testimony. “Working with this committee, we saw the bipartisan enactment and implementation of the HEARTH [Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Home Ownership] Act, putting tribes back in control of leasing and home mortgages on tribal lands.”
One overarching message Newland communicated during the question-and-answer session of his hearing was the importance of President Biden’s recent re-establishment of the White House Native American Affairs Council, which is meant to coordinate programming and funding across agencies on tribe-related topics.
Newland championed the council’s return. It was created during the Obama administration only to sit idle during the Trump administration.
Although his hearing was brief, and most senators seemed outwardly supportive of him regardless of their party affiliation, he faced a number of questions on topics ranging from how his past tribal leadership would aid him if confirmed and his understanding of Alaska Native issues to his ideas on better wildfire management.
Other issues he was queried about hinged on tribal energy, the recent McGirt land-focused case in Oklahoma and its broader implications for reservation boundaries nationwide, Indian child welfare, off-reservation gaming, broadband and tribal infrastructure needs, Federal Emergency Management Agency issues, law enforcement resources for missing and murdered women and children, consultation on the Dakota Access Pipeline, pandemic recovery, a clean Carcieri fix, urban Indian health, the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, funding for Indian water rights settlements, and implementation of the HEARTH Act of 2012.
Of note, Newland supports a legislative Carcieri remedy to a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that called into question the ability of Interior to take lands into trust for tribes that were federally recognized after 1934. Numerous lawsuits since that decision have been filed involving such tribes, making arguments that their lands were inappropriately placed in trust and therefore their economic development projects on those lands should be quashed. Interior, the Justice Department, and tribes have worked together to stem the progress of such suits.
Additionally, Newland notably said that he supports tribal sovereignty when it comes to tribal energy development, whether the projects are clean energy or fossil-fuel based. He also wants increased consultation to tribes from the federal government when it comes to pipeline development.
The hearing, by coincidence, was held on the same day that the TC Energy Corp. announced it was terminating the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that proved controversial for many Indian citizens wanting to protect their lands, their health, and the environment during the Obama and Trump administrations.
Schatz, the chairman of the committee, put out a statement soon after the hearing concluded saying that he supports Newland’s confirmation before the full Senate.
“I believe Mr. Newland has the necessary experience to hit the ground running, implement the president’s agenda, and execute Indian Country’s priorities,” Schatz said. “His sincerity and willingness to learn are key attributes to this position, and Mr. Newland has made clear that he is committed to serving as chief federal advocate for not just tribal nations, but for the Native Hawaiian community as well.”
Schatz added that more than 30 tribes and tribal organizations, including the United South and Eastern Tribes, the National Congress of American Indians and the Alaska Federation of Natives, have submitted letters to the committee in support of the nominee.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the vice-chair of the committee, seemed pleased during Newland’s testimony, but she raised some questions about his knowledge of specific Alaska Native-related issues, and she said his past comments on Alaska Native Corporations were troublesome and caused “hot temperatures” to flare.
Murkowski said she looked forward to soon receiving complete written answers to questions on various issues from Newland, including on Alaska Native-focused ones. She also said he had the “big shoes to fill” from his immediate predecessor in the position, Tara Sweeney, who is Alaska Native. Sweeney pleased the senator during her service, but some of her decisions were controversial to tribes, especially in the lower 48 states.
Schatz said the public record would be open for one week regarding Newland’s nomination before he adjourned the session.
Newland’s wife, parents and two children, all from Bay Mills, were in attendance at the hearing, held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated from its original form.