John Tahsuda. Photo: Navigators Global

Kiowa citizen John Tahsuda set to join Bureau of Indian Affairs leadership team

It's seven months into the Trump administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs still lacks a permanent leader.

But the agency will soon be seeing a new face in an important position. John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe, is coming on board after the Labor Day weekend to serve as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

Tahsuda, an attorney, is well known in Indian policy circles in Washington, D.C. He worked for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs under Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) between 2002 and 2007. He also spent time at the National Indian Gaming Association, which represents more than 180 tribes.

Since 2007, Tahsuda has led the tribal affairs practice at Navigators Global, a Washington lobbying, management and communications firm. Recent clients include the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association and the Osage Nation's gaming enterprise, according to Senate lobbying records.

Tahsuda's background sets him apart from the Trump administration's only other hire at the BIA. Gavin Clarkson, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, has been serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development since June and has been warmly received by tribal leaders.

But Clarkson's lack of government and political experience has rubbed some in Indian Country the wrong way, with his eagerness to promote new Indian Trader regulations and his economic development ideas coming off as insensitive to tribal protocols. And comments attributed to him in media reports have caught top officials at the Department of the Interior by surprise.

"He's a handful," one senior official at the department said. Another top official frequently refers to Clarkson as the "energizer bunny."

Colleagues at the BIA have been trying to help Clarkson navigate the complexities of his new world and Tahsuda will bring in a stronger level of management and expertise not seen at the agency since January. Although Mike Black, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, has been serving as the "acting" Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, his position is only temporary and he has been kept out of the loop on certain issues by Interior's top political appointees.

There's talk of Tahsuda being named the "acting" Assistant Secretary as Indian Country awaits an official announcement from the White House. President Donald Trump has yet to nominate someone for the post, something both of his predecessors had done by this time in their first terms in office.

Secretary Ryan Zinke previously indicated that he has someone lined up for the Assistant Secretary job but difficulties in the vetting process have delayed that person's arrival. Tahsuda had been rumored as a potential pick, as had Clarkson.

So far, Zinke and Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt are the only two Senate confirmed officials at Interior. The Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs and the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development do not require Senate approval.

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