Interior Employees Raise Concerns After Department Celebrates ‘European Heritage Month’

The Interior Department celebrated European Heritage Month in August, an unusual move that has caused some employees to feel uneasy. 

Interior published an online monthly magazine as part of that celebration, which highlighted the history and accomplishments of various European cultures in the United States. While the same publication put out previous issues that focused on other groups such as LGBTQ and Asian Americans, the publication caused a stir among some employees who saw the celebration as insensitive and improperly promoting ideals related to white pride.

Employees at Interior said they could not recall Interior ever recognizing European Heritage Month previously, with one saying the department “made up their own commemorative month.” The publication was put together by the head of “special emphasis programs” at the Interior Business Center, though the magazine is labeled as a publication of Interior’s Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administrative Services. A division of Interior’s Office of Civil Rights, the department’s special emphasis programs website lists nearly a dozen events and groups as part of its observance policy and European heritage is not one of them. There does not appear to be any national recognition of August as European Heritage Month. 

Some Interior workers who were aware of the publication became annoyed and angry about it, one employee said. The message appeared to promote a “white lives matter” ideology, said the individual, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, and was especially troubling “during a time of civil awakening.” 

Steve Carlisle, the editor of the magazine, told Government Executive he had no intention of making a political statement and did not want to “insult anybody or hurt anybody.” He said he and his colleagues gave “a lot of consideration” to the potential blowback of publishing the issue, but ultimately decided it was important to “make content relevant to everyone” and saw it as a way to “celebrate immigration.” Carlisle came up with the idea for the magazine during the novel coronavirus pandemic, as Interior employees could no longer gather in person to celebrate various cultures each month. 

“Taken as a whole,” he said of the project, “it is really about including as many groups and backgrounds of people as we possibly can.” 

The issue highlights the history of many Europeans arriving to the United States through Ellis Island and goes on to highlight specific experiences of Welsh, Irish and German Americans, including some first-person narratives of Interior employees who vacationed in their ancestral homelands. It also included references to National Parks with “European connections.” The Interior employee took issue with a blurb on the large number of Native Americans in Florida at the time of European contact, suggesting it only served to highlight that those populations have been almost entirely wiped out. 

Another Interior employee said the entire issue of the magazine was “tone deaf.” 

The Southern Poverty Law Center has flagged various organizations that celebrate European heritage as associated with white nationalism. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore, R-Va., once sparked a brief scandal after declaring May as European Heritage Month, only to reverse that decision after learning the request for the declaration came from a white supremacist group led by David Duke. 

This month, the Trump administration has issued various memoranda and an executive order requiring federal agencies to root out diversity and inclusion trainings that include references to systemic racism and other concepts the president has deemed as “divisive” and “un-American propaganda.” 

Interior did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

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