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Obama vows Salazar will fulfill trust responsibilities
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Filed Under: Cobell | Politics | Trust


President-elect Barack Obama introduced Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colorado) as his nominee for Secretary of the Department of the Interior on Wednesday, vowing to give tribal nations a voice in his administration.

Speaking from his transition headquarters in Chicago, Obama promised his pick will ensure the federal government lives up to its treaty and trust responsibilities. Interior oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, the two agencies with the most impact on reservations.

"We need more than just a government-to-government relationship, we need a nation-to-nation relationship," the incoming president said.

Salazar, a first-term senator from a state with two tribes, hasn't had much experience with Indian issues during his time in Washington, D.C. But he also referenced Native Americans in his remarks yesterday.

"I look forward to helping to address the challenges faced by our Native American communities across the nation," said Salazar, who comes from a ranching family.

The comments from Obama and Salazar stood in direct contrast to those made by President George W. Bush and his Interior nominees. In 2000, when Coloradan Gale Norton was named to the post, and 2006, when former Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne took her place, Indian issues weren't mentioned at all.

But controversies, ranging from the Indian trust fund debacle to off-reservation gaming, consumed both picks. The Jack Abramoff scandal, the largest in Washington in recent history, sent a top Interior official to prison for his dealings on tribal matters.

"I also want an Interior Department that very frankly cleans up its act," Obama said. "There have been too many problems and too much emphasis on big time lobbyists in Washington."

"That's going to change under Ken Salazar," Obama added.

Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit over individual Indian trust funds, expressed hope that Obama and Salazar will live up to their pledges. Her case was filed in June 1996 and has failed to see a resolution under Democratic and Republican presidents.

"Now it is up to the next president and his Interior Secretary to settle what is the longest-running class action civil suit against the government," Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, said in a statement.

Two of Cobell's attorneys -- John Echohawk, the executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, and Keith Harper, a former NARF staffer now in private practice -- are in fact playing a key role in shaping the new Interior as members of Obama's transition team. Echohawk and another ex-NARF attorney have been dealing with general Interior issues while Harper has focused on the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Besides nominating Salazar, Obama will choose a new assistant secretary for Indian Affairs to oversee the BIA, a new Special Trustee for American Indians for OST and a new chair for the NIGC. Salazar, if confirmed, gets to name two of the NIGC commissioners.

But before those posts are filled, Salazar will go through the confirmation process. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on which Salazar served, is expected to hold hearings on the nomination in January.

"He understands how to manage federal lands and resources and knows the importance of working with stakeholders while protecting the public interest," Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), the chairman of the committee said. "Ken also will provide a strong Western voice in the Cabinet, and he’ll do a terrific job working with the states and the tribes."

Kempthorne, who will stay on board until Obama is inaugurated on January 20, praised Salazar too. "He recognizes the importance that America's federal lands must play in reducing our dependence on foreign energy; he supports our national parks; he has positive relationships with American Indian tribes; he understands the complexities of western water issues," Kempthorne said in a statement.

From Change.Gov:
President-elect Obama announces Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture (December 17, 2008)

Related Stories:
Ken Salazar being announced as Interior nominee (12/17)
Editorial: Salazar inherits troubled Interior (12/17)
Editorial: Ken Salazar a wise choice for Interior (12/16)
Opinion: A Republican for Interior Secretary (12/16)
Editorial: Eleventh hour mischief at Interior (12/16)
Report finds political influence by Interior official (12/16)
Reports: Sen. Ken Salazar slated for Interior (12/15)
Opinion: A Republican for Interior Secretary (12/16)
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Editorial: Raul Grijalva for Interior Secretary (12/11)
Gover now calls potential Interior nod a 'rumor' (12/10)
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