A former Michigan tribal chairperson is now leading Indigenous affairs issues federally, from land preservation to boarding schools. But he hasn’t forgotten his roots.

BAY MILLS, Mich.—Peering inside Bryan Newland’s home, you can immediately tell he doesn’t come from the inside circle of Washington, D.C., beltway bigwigs. Newland, a DC outsider who now holds the title of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, quite evidently likes it that way.

Because judging from his Zoom backdrop, it’s clear he hasn’t moved on from his Michigan roots.

It’s the well-polished rustic wooden framing, slanted at a 60-degree angle and eager to meet its counterpart at the home’s gable, that gives him away. 

Washington, D.C., for its many beautiful rowhouses and the surrounding, sprawling affluence, doesn’t have homes like this. Unmistakably, his was built for the cold, to keep heat in, and has some history to it. 

“As you can see from my home here in Northern Michigan, I and my family still live in our tribal community,” Newland said in a video call with The ‘Gander. “I work in DC.”

That’s the perk of telework capabilities. Though Newland is a high-ranking official in for the Department of Interior, protecting the environment and longstanding treaty rights for the many tribal communities who live within the United States, he still works from the Bay Mills Indian Community, of which he is a member. 

There, in the eastern Upper Peninsula, he keeps his ear to the ground, listening to community concerns about violence, abuse, and other top issues that bother Indigenous people in Michigan.

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A Son of Michigan

Newland descends from a line of service. His mother worked for the tribal government, his grandparents were teachers, and his dad worked for state government. It was an expectation he’d follow suit.

When he previously served as chairperson of the Bay Mills Indian Community, Newland, an Ojibwe, fought against Line 5 and advocated for tribal treaty rights at home. A Canadian-owned oil and gas pipeline that poses tremendous environmental danger, experts say, Line 5 has been in court disputes over whether it legally passes through Michigan waters. State leaders say it doesn’t.

After his call up to the federal level, Newland has scaled his same focuses of environmental protection, safety, and fair treatment under law—though he’s not allowed to work on Line 5, due to his previous involvement—to a larger scope.

“I care a lot about making sure that our communities are safe in Indian country,” Newland said.

The Department of Interior has been under the spotlight since Secretary Deb Haaland ordered a nationwide review of a United States federal policy that ripped Indigenous children from their homes and forced them into federally sponsored boarding schools, usually with a Christian foundation. These schools whitewashed the education of Indigenous children with the explicit goal of exterminating Native language and culture.

Now, Newland is helping to carry out that report, and he says that the department will have “something to share” by Haaland’s April 1 deadline. However, the work won’t stop there, he said. Across hundreds of federal boarding schools, more research has to be done, and only after a full and comprehensive review can the government correct an intentionally omitted history from the public discourse and determine the next steps.

“We must shed light on what happened at federal Boarding Schools,” Newland said when the work started.

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Reason for Optimism

Many Indigenous languages throughout the US have been or are on the verge of extinction, in part because of boarding schools. In Michigan, community attempts to revive these languages have experienced recent success, but fluent speakers are still difficult to come by.

Newland, who’s great-grandparents were boarding school survivors, said that in discussions with tribes, he’s seen many make an active push to have their elders fully vaccinated, to help protect their language and tradition.

“There isn’t a Native person in the United States who hasn’t had their family and their experience as a Native person shaped by federal boarding schools,” Newland said.

During the inception of the country, tribes throughout the country signed treaties with the federal government to preserve their rights to hunt, fish, and preserve forms of autonomy in exchange for the cession of land. The federal government routinely violated and disregarded these treaties, though they have always remained in effect and are considered the “supreme law of the land.”

Under the new administration, 17 cabinet agencies came together to sign an agreement that all federal actions will actively protect treaty rights, not just recognize them. Line 5, Michigan tribal leaders—including Newland, in his previous role—have argued, is an example of a threat to these treaty rights

Newland also sees hope in the new infrastructure bill, which sets aside funds for water rights settlements and ecosystem restoration. New initiatives could safeguard tribal territories and give Indigenous people whose lands have been compromised the ability to protect themselves against a changing climate and rising sea levels.

“A lot of folks wonder why tribes care about issues outside of their reservations or communities,” Newland said. “These treaties that tribes signed with the United States in exchange for the cession of land also often rights to hunt and fish and gather and prey in territories that go far beyond modern-day reservations.”

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