Native candidates offered top positions at Interior
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In his first appearance before Congress, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday said President Barack Obama is making good on his promise to include Native Americans at the highest levels of the federal government.

Within the Interior Department, tribal members are typically tapped for leadership posts at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, the National Indian Gaming Commission. But Salazar said the Obama administration is vetting Native American candidates as Solicitor of the Interior and as Commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation.

"Those are not traditional positions for Native Americans to hold within the department," Salazar noted in his testimony to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

"But I think the people that we have here, that hopefully will get confirmed by this Senate in the next month or two, are the kind of '800-pound gorillas' that you want to work on the major problems that face the department," Salazar said.

Salazar did not mention names but he said he extended offers to Native candidates for both positions. If the nominations move forward, it would set a precedent for Interior and for Indian Country.

The Solicitor is the top attorney at the department and someone with a strong Indian law background could bring about a big shift in policy. The last administration saw the birth of negative legal opinions and views about sacred sites, Indian trust management, the federal-tribal trust relationship and Indian preference.

Additionally, the Office of the Solicitor under the last administration was criticized by the department's Inspector General for failing to ensure top officials followed the law. Several former officials, including Interior's second-in-command, pleaded guilty for ethical lapses.

As for Reclamation, a Native candidate could provide a tribal voice in a wide range of issues, from water rights settlements to fishing rights to irrigation projects. Under the Bush administration, tribes in the Klamath Basin of northern California and southern Oregon lost out big when it came to water management policies.

The Solicitor and Reclamation picks would join Larry EchoHawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, as the expected assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. The White House has not made a formal announcement but key members of Congress, tribal advocates and a former member of Obama's transition team have touted him as the nominee.

So far, Salazar is the only Senate-confirmed nominee at Interior. David Hayes is awaiting consideration as deputy secretary, the number two position at the department.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, pressed Salazar to fill the leadership positions, citing a void during the Bush administration that left the top BIA post for over three years. Three people held the assistant secretary job under the last president, with none lasting more than 18 months.

"I know there are some wonderful people that work in the BIA but I could tell you stories that just make you furious about the lack of things getting done over there," said Dorgan, who cited energy development as one area of concern.

Interior, often seen as one of the less prestigious of government agencies, has already benefited from high-level attention under the new administration. Last month, Obama brought Salazar to the White House last month to highlight efforts to clean up the department after being connected to a slew of corruption scandals.

Earlier this week, First Lady Michelle Obama took her star power to the department and touted her husband's initiatives to elevate Indian policy. The visit came after the president announced the hiring of a Native woman to serve in a top post at the White House, with another Native appointment expected in the coming weeks.

Committee Video/Testimony:
OVERSIGHT HEARING to receive the views of Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, on matters of Indian affairs (February 12, 2009)

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