PeerSpirit Newsletter – The Owl and the Tree October 2021


A Celebration for this Indigenous People’s Day

by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea

We began crafting this on October 11, 2021 — Indigenous People’s Day in the United States. This name change from Columbus Day is a gesture gaining increasing acceptance, but it barely touches the ongoing need for justice and reckoning with the history/present/future of this continent.

Once we were two little white girls growing up in Minnesota, who were educated in the mythologies of American history, and participated unconsciously for decades in the privileges of our white skins. As carriers of circle, we have been careful to source our terminology and practices in white indigeneity, looking at Celtic and Nordic ancestries, and working to find ways to claim the circle without appropriation. Christina’s first book on our work, Calling the Circle, The First and Future Culture, hypothesized that circle is a common foundation of culture-building, even for those that veered away into hierarchy and dominance models.

Having passed our life work into the next generations of teachers through the nonprofit, we are delighted to see the governing council expanding diversity in participation and outreach. The Circle Way’s November fund-raiser, “Decolonizing the Way We Meet,” is a three-part, multi-ethnic, international, intergenerational offering open to all who want to learn more about the ways white supremacy conditioning, language, and behavior operate even in well-intentioned groups.

Now we are two older white women, living on the edge of the continent, who continually look for ways to break open the mythologies of American history and lay groundwork for a society with the courage to make restitution and be in justice with all citizens. The island we live on is Tscha’kole’chy, a shared gathering place of Salish nations who came here to harvest camas roots, shellfish, salmon and find the strongest cedars for their canoes.


And here we all are, in this experiment of what kind of nation we have been, are, and will become. We are living with a level of political upheaval exhausting and hard to track, at the same time living with milestone triumphs and advancements. President Biden has appointed the most diverse cabinet in American history, including the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Debra Haaland, Laguna Pueblo. Haaland is the first Native American to head the Department of the Interior and oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the federal agency that rules the lives of Native peoples.

Though policies of the BIA have evolved over the years, a 30-year snapshot of its beginning is sobering. The changes that are still needed are an immediate focus of Haaland’s.

The BIA was created in 1824 to enforce the 1819 Indian Civilization Act, a federal policy designed to institute cultural genocide of Indigenous people through a network of Indian boarding schools that would “kill the Indian and save the man.” It became the enforcement agency for increasingly brutal policies. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to the Trail of Tears when 60,000 members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations were forced from their homelands in the southern states and walked to Oklahoma. In 1851 President Millard Fillmore appointed Oliver Wozencraft as Indian commissioner to form treaties with California tribes, which Interior Secretary Alexander Stuart then nullified.

Standing in her moccasins and rainbow skirt, Sec. Haaland referenced her predecessor Sec. Stuart in her acceptance speech last March: “This moment is profound when we consider that a former Secretary of the Interior once proclaimed his goal was to civilize or exterminate us. I am a living testament to the failure of that horrific ideology.”

Secretary Haaland, second from right in her rainbow ribbon skirt, at her swearing in ceremony. (Photo by Tami Heilemann, Department of the Interior.)


In June 2021, at the online National Congress of American Indians, she announced the first-ever investigation into the US boarding school policy. “I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead, the same agency that tried to eradicate our culture, our language, our spiritual practices, and our people,” Haaland said. “We must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.”

As head of the Department of the Interior Haaland is also responsible for the administration of millions of acres of public lands. The Department of the Interior manages the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which administers approximately 245 million acres; the National Park Service (NPS) administers approximately 80 million acres; the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages approximately 150 million acres; and the Bureau of Indian Affairs manages 55 million acres held in public trust.

One might point out that all public lands are actually tribal lands. What became America was not a vast and empty continent belonging to no one: it was a populated continent divided into rich and diverse tribal nations with governments (hello circle), languages, thousands of years of traditions, landholdings, and spiritual attachment to the ground on which they walked.

(Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)

Who is this woman? Haaland identifies herself as a 35th generation New Mexican and one of only two Native representatives ever elected to the U.S. Congress. Born in Arizona, both of Secretary Haaland’s parents served in the military. She attended 13 different public schools before the family settled in Albuquerque, N.M.

From 1994 to 2006 Haaland worked on her law degree at the University of New Mexico, while running a salsa factory and raising her daughter as a single mother. At times she couch-surfed with friends and was effectively homeless. All the while, this determined woman was gathering strength and experience to become a leader for her people.

The Celebration

The celebration for this year’s Indigenous People’s Day is that President Biden has followed Haaland’s recommendation to restore and expand the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument and the 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument in Utah — reversing a decision by former President Trump that stripped away much of their protection.

Southern Utah has always been a spiritual base where over many years Ann has camped, hiked, and backpacked through rugged, red rock wilderness filled with desert beauty and archaeological history. “Bears Ears and Escalante are international treasures that we had no right to threaten with permanent damage from mining interests and pilfering of native artifacts,” said Ann. “Bears Ears was first protected by President Barack Obama after years of meetings between various interest groups.”

In a beautifully written article in the Fall 2021 Sierra Club Magazine, A Living Testament, Deb Haaland becomes the United States First Native Interior Secretary, by Jenni Monet, we gain a greater glimpse into this fierce woman:

“On her recent hike to Butler Wash (also known as the Grand Museum of  Archaeology in the Bears Ears National Monument) with tribal leaders and Utah politicians, Haaland found herself at the edge of a rare perennial spring, a lifeline to the arid mesa. It glinted at her. Tenakhongva and other Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition members burned earth medicines and offered them to the water. For the second time that day, in the home of her ancestors, Haaland acknowledged the land with gratitude and prayed. “The earth holds so much power,” she said as the desert light started to wane.

Hands shoved in pockets, a medicine bundle dangling around her neck, Madam Secretary stood in the Valley of the Gods as sundown gave shadow to the land.”

The job ahead of Deb Haalund is completely overwhelming. She is taking one step at a time to remake the history of how the United States has treated its public lands and its founding Native Americans. We can pay attention, support her, speak up for Native issues, Native land claims and treaties.