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Published in Economic Development
Former Michigan tribal leader faces Senate questioning for top Bureau of Indian Affairs job COURTESY SCREENSHOT

Former Michigan tribal leader faces Senate questioning for top Bureau of Indian Affairs job

BY Thursday, June 10, 2021 10:05am

WASHINGTON — Former Bay Mills Indian Community Chairperson Bryan Newland told a Senate committee how his firsthand experience growing up on a reservation in Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula would shape his perspective if confirmed to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In April, President Joe Biden nominated Newland to be the next Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, the top Senate-confirmed position in the agency that is responsible for upholding the United States’ government-to-government relationship with the 574 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations. 

Following an introduction by Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, Newland spoke before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs about his family’s experience and how that would shape his perspective in tackling the top role at the BIA.

“Growing up on our reservation, I saw how federal laws and policies affected the lives of everyday Indians,” Newland said. “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.” 

Newland also spoke personally about how federal policies affected his family, who lived in federally supported tribal housing and later navigated the cumbersome BIA process to get approved for a mortgage on the reservation. 

“When that mortgage was finally approved, my parents became the first people on the Bay Mills Reservation to have a mortgage-financed home,” he told the senators in prepared remarks during the hearing Wednesday. “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.”

Newland would go on to graduate from Michigan State University and the MSU College of Law, going into private practice as an attorney at Lansing-based Fletcher Law PLLC, which specializes in American Indian law. He went on to serve as a counselor and policy adviser in the BIA during the Obama administration, before coming back to Bay Mills to serve as Chief Judge of the Bay Mills Tribal Court. 

The Bay Mills tribe elected Newland to serve as Tribal President in 2017. As Tribal Business News reported, Newland was a strong advocate for tribal online gaming and sports betting and spoke out about the Department of the Interior’s policies toward tribes during the Trump administration. 

He also led the tribe through its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said “became an important, life-or-death focus.”

“Through our partnership with the Indian Health Service, we established early community surveillance testing for COVID-19. We saw a disproportionately low rate of infection on our reservation thanks to non-partisan coordination with local, state, and federal officials. At the same time, we were able to expand our tribal businesses, develop a new health center, and grow jobs and incomes at Bay Mills, important goals for our community.”

Newland retained the leadership position at the federally recognized Ojibwe tribe until February, when he stepped down to take the role of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the BIA. Biden later moved to promote Newland to the top BIA position in mid April, as MiBiz previously reported

Informed by his experiences, Newland outlined the role he sees for the federal agency.

“I believe that tribal governments, rather than federal agencies, are best-suited to respond to the challenges their communities face,” he told senators in prepared remarks. “Our job is to be a collaborative trustee and ensure that Indian Country drives our work.”

Tribal Business News reported widespread bipartisan support for Newland among senators on the Committee for Indian Affairs. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who chairs the committee and was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., issued a statement supporting Newland’s nomination to lead the BIA.

“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 in a statement. “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.”

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