It was a historic day for the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians on Monday, January 12 as United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland made a personal visit to properties and facilities owned by the tribe, including their Tribal headquarters in Trout. To the knowledge of current Tribal leadership and staff, she was the first government official of the highest office to ever visit the Jena Tribe. “Having the U.S. Secretary of the Interior visit the Jena Band of Choctaw’s headquarters was not only historic but an honor and a privilege for the Tribe,” Chief Libby Rogers said. “Our employees and Tribal Youth Council members who were able to interact with Secretary Haaland were ecstatic to have someone of her caliber visit us.” Secretary Haaland met with Chief Rogers and other Tribal leaders to tour their headquarters and businesses as well as speak about land rights, natural resources and other needs and concerns of the Tribe. Trout was a stop on her multi-day trip through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama where she met with several federally recognized Tribes to highlight how historic resources from the current administration are supporting Indigenous communities. She also reinforced the Interior Department’s ongoing work to advance equity and social justice, including efforts to help tell a more complete story of America. Secretary Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna located in New Mexico.
On the Secretary’s social media account, the following was shared about the historic LaSalle Parish visit: “The Jena Band of Choctaw Indians steward a vibrant culture grounded in the protection of the lands and waters that give their people life. We toured the Tribe’s facilities and heard from leadership about how we can best partner to support future generations.”
Secretary Haaland first traveled to Grant Parish for a walk-through of the Tribe’s Jena Choctaw Pines Casino before heading to Jena to see the Tribe’s former headquarters on Cowart Street and part of Tribal housing as well as a stop at Choctaw Village to view Miko’s and Twisted Feather.
Her visit ended with a tour of the Tribe’s headquarters in Trout including the future site of the Tribe’s new health clinic. While in Trout, she spoke to Tribal leadership, staff and youth Council members and was served Louisiana cuisine at a reception in her honor.
Accompanying Secretary Haaland on the visit were two representatives with the Eastern Regional Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA): Regional Director Kimberly Bouchard and Management and Program Analyst Chester McGhee.
Before departing Trout, Secretary Haaland was presented with a Tribal blanket by Chief Rogers as well as handmade stickball sticks from Cultural Director Casey Bigpond. The evening ended with those present forming a circle and Bigpond singing the traditional Chahta Walk Dance song for safe travels.
As a result of the personal visit by Haaland, Chief Rogers said the Jena Choctaw have made history and were reassured that the Department of Interior is there to assist the Tribe.
“By having a Native American in this role, Secretary Haaland understands how the funding and issues through the Department of Interior affected Tribal Nations,” Chief Rogers said. “There are times in our government-to-government relationships that we can become just a name and number but to have face-to-face conversations with officials who want to make a difference for all Native Country is humbling. The future of our working relationship will only improve and our voices have been heard.”
In Louisiana, Secretary Haaland also visited the Chitimacha Tribe, Coushatta Tribe and Tunica- Biloxi Tribe. During each visit, she heard from Tribal members about ongoing work to invest in each community’s infrastructure and the impact that funding from the current administration has had to provide the support and resources for each Tribe to thrive.
In meetings with the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe and the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, the Tribes discussed their continued efforts to bring land-into- trust. At the 2023 White House Tribal Nations Summit, the Department’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs announced a final rule to update the federal regulations governing fee-to-trust, or land-into-trust, acquisitions that transfer land title to the United States to be held in trust for the benefit of a Tribe or individual Tribal citizen. The final rule will make the process simpler, more efficient and less expensive.