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Biden should nominate a Native American to his cabinet, says former US Ambassador Keith Harper

Kristin Myers
·4 min read

As President-elect Joe Biden announces picks for his cabinet, a Native American should be on the list, said Cherokee citizen Keith Harper, former U.S. ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“There's never been a Cabinet Secretary who is Native, in the history of the United States,” Harper explained. “And I think that should change. You know, President-elect Biden has been very clear that he wants a cabinet that looks like America. And since there's never been a native in the cabinet, I think one both symbolic but real change is to break that glass ceiling.”

Harper added that the “best and most appropriate place is in the Interior Department, so a Secretary of Interior who's Native.”

Harper, the country’s first Native American ambassador said that Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) would be an “outstanding” choice. The Congresswoman has been rumored to be considered for the job.

The next administration needs to create processes to help identify challenges facing Native Americans, he said, “and then work between the federal government and the tribes to empower the tribes to address those challenges.”

It’s a model he said that was used effectively in the Obama-Biden administration, pointing to the Tribal Nations Conference as an example. Harper said the ability for tribal communities to prosecute non-Natives in qualified crimes against women was one such policy win.

“We have to get back to that, where we're working hand-in-hand, nation-to-nation, between tribes and the federal government to identify the challenges, and then come up with real-world pragmatic solutions to them.”

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - JUNE 11: U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Keith Harper delivers a speech on the topics which will be discussed at the Human Rights Council next week during a press conference at the UN Geneva office in Geneva, Switzerland on June 11, 2015. (Photo by Fatih Erel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - JUNE 11: U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Keith Harper delivers a speech on the topics which will be discussed at the Human Rights Council next week during a press conference at the UN Geneva office in Geneva, Switzerland on June 11, 2015. (Photo by Fatih Erel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In addition to the cabinet, Harper said, the United States should honor its treaty with the Cherokee tribal nation to seat a delegate to Congress. It’s a 200-year agreement that has never been honored. Last year, the Cherokee nation named its first delegate, Kimberly Teehee to Congress, but she has yet to be seated.

“That's still the supreme law of the land. And there's no reason why the United States shouldn't be held to live up to that commitment,” he said. “Yes, there are more natives now in Congress than there have ever been before. But we're still only talking about a handful of people.”

Harper explained that treaties promising tribal nations delegates weren’t just “any” treaties. “These are treaties that gave up wide swaths of land that is now part of the United States that non-Indians live on. I think with that kind of exchange, the least that can happen is that there is a commitment to confirm and to implement the treaty commitments, such as the delegate to Congress.”

A troubling history

Representation could help address some of the challenges facing the Native American community, particularly around wealth and health inequalities.

According to the Indian Health Service, American Indians have a life expectancy that is 5.5 years shorter than the rest of the American population. Over 25% of Native Americans are in poverty, compared to just over 20% of Blacks and nearly 18% of Hispanics. Roughly 10% of White Americans live in poverty.

Persistent gaps remain between Native Americans and their other counterparts in household income and wealth.

“It's a product, I think, of a history that is well known to be a troubling one,” Harper said. “The good news is, in my estimation, that for the last 40 years or so, tribes have been empowered in what's called the era of self-determination, to have greater self-sufficiency, have greater sovereignty over their lands and communities.”

“I think there's greater prosperity in Indian Country today than ever before. I think there's greater ability to be politically active and be part of the wider United States politics,” he added. “Native people are part of this conversation. There's still a lot of challenges ahead. But so long as we put tribes in charge of their own destiny, I think we will continue to see this move in the right direction.”

Kristin Myers is a reporter and anchor for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.

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