An Open Letter to Biden from Indigenous Peoples

Trump wrecked the relationship between the U.S. government and Native nations. Here’s how the Biden Administration can repair this damage.

Rural America In These Times

Protesters march against the Dakota Access Pipeline on March 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This open letter was first published by Land is Life, an international coalition of Indigenous peoples.

Dear President Biden,

Congratulations to you and Vice President Harris on your historic election. We pray for the success of your administration and your efforts to confront the Covid-19 pandemic, reduce global conflicts, respond to challenges presented by global climate change, and restore the ecological integrity of the planet.

Today, as we begin the work of Building Back Better, we are confident that you and Vice President Harris recognize and will honor the fundamental role of Indigenous peoples in addressing the world’s most urgent challenges, including global climate change, biodiversity loss, extreme poverty, and other social and environmental conflicts.

The Trump administration has done enormous harm over the past four years to the relationship between the U.S. government and Indigenous peoples, not only in the United States but also around the world. It is of the utmost importance that your administration and the 117th Congress take urgent action to repair this damage.

Domestically, this means restoring government-to-government relations with Tribes; honoring the government’s treaty and trust obligations; investing in Tribal health, education, and economic development programs; and promoting Tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

Internationally, the United States must become a champion for Indigenous Peoples’ rights and, in our foreign policy and foreign assistance, engage Indigenous Peoples as partners — through their own social, political, and legal institutions — in addressing the world’s most urgent challenges and in advancing security, prosperity, sustainability, and peace.

As we begin the work of Building Back Better, we humbly, hopefully, and insistently urge your administration to carry out the following actions in the first 100 days of your presidency:

1. Draft a National Action Plan for implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

2. Secure permanent protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and halt construction of the Dakota Access and Enbridge Line 3 pipelines.

3. Secure permanent protection for the sacred sites Mauna Kea, Bears Ears National Monument, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

4. Reengage and revitalize the Trilateral Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls (U.S., Canada, Mexico).

5. Commit to engaging and supporting the work of United Nations bodies that address Indigenous peoples’ rights, includingUN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and provide funding for the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples.

6. Make Indigenous Peoples’ issues a standing agenda item at the UN Security Council.

7. Commit to transforming USAID’s development model to one that is based on human rights, a model that — with regard to Indigenous peoples — invests in strengthening their collective rights to lands, territories, and resources; recognizes and respects their right to self-determination; and embraces a standard of free, prior, and informed consent.

8. Commit to promoting and implementing effective actions for the protection and respect of the human rights of Indigenous defenders globally.

9. Confirm that Indigenous Peoples will have a prominent, meaningful space in the 2021 Global Summit for Democracy.

10. Pardon and free Leonard Peltier.

Nominating a daughter of the Laguna Pueblo, Rep. Deb Haaland, as the next Secretary of the Department of the Interior is an inspired, important choice. We believe that she is uniquely qualified for this position, and we are confident that she has the vision and wisdom needed to usher in a new era of true government-to-government relations between the United States and Native American Nations; an era that not only recognizes but also celebrates the role of Native Americans in creating a stronger, more sustainable, more resilient USA.

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Revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline on your first day in office also fills us with hope, but, as you know, there is so much more work to do.

As you asserted in your inaugural address to the nation, there’s much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.” For Indigenous Peoples, these words carry enormous significance. Only a strong resolve, together with bold and visionary actions, will enact systemic change and stop the long historical process of dispossession of Indigenous lands and violations of their rights.

Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, said during your inauguration ceremony, While we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.” President Biden, you have the unique opportunity and power to change history and set strong foundations to begin moving toward a future where Indigenous peoples are allowed to assume their rightful role as partners in creating a more just and sustainable world; where they are self-determined, and their collective rights to territories, resources, and knowledge are recognized and respected.

We are prepared and motivated to collaborate with your administration in moving forward toward this brighter future.

Signed by:

Brian Keane, Former Member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), Former Advisor —  Indigenous Peoples’ Issues — USAID and Land is Life Co-Founder and Board Member
Casey Box, Executive Director, Land is Life
Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine, Tin Hinane Association — Mali, Former UNPFII Chair, Land is Life Board Member
Marcos Terena, Inter Tribal Committee (ITC) — Brazil and Land is Life Co-Founder and Board Member
Cecilia Baltazar Yucailla, Kichwa Indigenous leader from Ecuador and Land is Life Board Member
Gleb Raygorodetsky, Land is Life Board Member
Bernadette Demientieff, Gwich’in Steering Committee Executive Director
Gregorio Mirabal, Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA)
Jiten Yumnan, Centre for Research and Advocacy, Manipur – India
Jackson Shaa, Narasha Community Development Group, Kenya
Daniel Kobei, Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP), Kenya
Gloria Ushigua, Sapara Indigenous activist from Ecuador
Alicia Weya Cahuiya, Waorani Indigenous activist from Ecuador
Killa Becerra, Inga Indigenous activist from Colombia
Ole Kaunga, IMPACT Kenya and PARAN Alliance
Basiru Isa, The Network of Indigenous Peoples and Local Population for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystem in Central Africa (REPALEAC)
Nicolas Salazar Sutil, Forest Guardians
Elias Kimaiyo, Sengwer Indigenous Community, Kenya
Tezera Getahun, Pastoralist Forum Ethiopia (PFE)

On behalf of Land is Life, an international coalition of Indigenous Peoples.

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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