Tara Sweeney, the Trump administration's nominee to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, has vowed to advocate for tribal interests if she is confirmed to the post. Photo: Navajo Nation Washington Office

Tribes call for speedy action on long-awaited Bureau of Indian Affairs pick

Tribal leaders are seeking quick action on the Trump administration's nominee to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs amid questions about an issue far from the lower 48 states.

The National Congress of American Indians, which just wrapped up its mid-year conference, issued a statement on Thursday in support of Tara Sweeney to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. The post, a political job at the Department of the Interior, has been vacant for more than two years amid massive change in the nation's capital.

"The office of the Assistant Secretary—Indian Affairs plays a critical role in the government-to-government relationship," NCAI said in the statement. "This vacancy has caused undue stresses on this relationship, and we urge the Senate to move swiftly to confirm Ms. Sweeney in the coming weeks."

Republican supporters are hoping to move as soon as possible. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is one of the Sweeney's biggest champions, said the Inupiat corporate executive from Alaska is the right person to take what is often considered a thankless job.

"It's hard and it is difficult," Murkowski said of the post at a business meeting of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday afternoon.

"I believe if anyone is up to this difficult task, it is Tara Sweeney," added Murkowski.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Tara Sweeney - Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs - Business Meeting

But as the committee approved the nomination at the meeting, Democrats raised questions about the Trump administration's push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to energy development. In her role as a shareholder and executive for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, Sweeney herself has advocated for oil and gas drilling there for nearly two decades.

Indeed, when Congress opened up a portion of ANWR to development late last year over the objections of Democrats, environmental groups and other Alaska Natives, Murkowski was eager to credit Sweeney during a speech on the Senate floor last December.

With what seemed like an impossible achievement just a few years ago a new reality, Sweeney's past has come back to haunt her. She's already pledged to recuse herself from any decisions affecting her corporation, which stands to benefit financially from drilling in the so-called 1002 area of ANWR.

She also told the committee, during her confirmation hearing last month, that she would not seek a "waiver" from her recusal at any point in the future. Yet Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) said Sweeney's stance on the issue hasn't been clear enough.

"I've reviewed the answers the nominee had, but unfortunately do not believe they provide clarification," Cantwell said at the business meeting. "In fact Ms. Sweeney's written responses, I believe, muddied the water about what her answer was before the committee and what her intentions are."

As the committee put Sweeney to a voice vote, no one objected. But Cantwell said she will not support floor action until she receives "in writing" an additional response about the recusal and the waiver.

"I'd like her to just answer yes or no," said Cantwell, who is a former chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on YouTube: On the Nomination of Tara Sweeney

Cantwell wasn't the only one who was worried. Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chair of the panel, believes the issue is bigger than Sweeney, casting her nomination as a referendum on ethics in the Trump era and on the administration's commitment to the trust and treaty obligation.

“In this administration, more than ever, the American people are concerned about transparency and concerned that public officials are making private gains through their public service,” said Udall, who has opposed development in ANWR, as has Cantwell.

The Democratic doubts mean Sweeney's confirmation might not come fast enough for Indian Country. The smoothest path would be for the Senate to proceed with a voice vote or to move forward under unanimous consent -- something that's happened with almost every one of 12 prior Assistant Secretaries.

During the Barack Obama era, Kevin Washburn and Larry Echo Hawk were confirmed by unanimous consent. During the George W. Bush era, Dave Anderson and Neal McCaleb were confirmed by voice votes.

Carl Artman, who also served during the Bush era, was the only one put to a vote on the Senate floor after members of his own party attempted to slow his nomination. He received near unanimous support -- only one Republican went against him.

"The other 11 were either confirmed by unanimous consent or by voice," Murkowski pointed out on Wednesday. "I think that highlights the bipartisan nature that the Senate has routinely enjoyed when it comes to supporting these leadership positions for Indian Country."

"I would hope that with Tara Sweeney's confirmation that we are able to consider this bipartisan path forward," Murkowski added.

NCAI's full June 7, 2018, statement about Tara Sweeney follows:
Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) voted favorably to move the nomination of Tara Mac Lean Sweeney to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior to the full U.S. Senate for confirmation. The National Congress of American Indians is pleased SCIA is taking action on this vacancy. The office of the Assistant Secretary—Indian Affairs plays a critical role in the government-to-government relationship. This vacancy has caused undue stresses on this relationship, and we urge the Senate to move swiftly to confirm Ms. Sweeney in the coming weeks.

Alaska Native Corporations and ANWR

Decisions affecting development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will indeed occur at the Department of the Interior. But it's the Bureau of Land Management, not the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that usually deals with oil and gas leasing.

The BLM also finalizes land conveyances to Alaska Native corporations. And when it comes to ANWR, key decisions have already been made.

As the result of a "ingenious solution" adopted during the Reagan administration, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) obtained subsurface rights to about 92,000 acres within ANWR. The Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation (KIC), a separate Alaska Native entity, had already owned the surface rights.

A map of Alaska North's Slope shows the "1002 Area" of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where energy development could occur. Native owned lands are shaded orange. Image: U.S. Geological Survey

But ASRC and KIC aren't the only entities in the picture. Should development occur within the 1002 area of ANWR, mineral royalties are to be split among the federal government, the state of Alaska and Alaska Native corporations, according to Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), who discussed the issue as the House Committee on Appropriations approved the fiscal year 2019 funding bill for Interior on Wednesday.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Cole said, requires Native corporations to share revenues from natural resources development on their lands with their fellow corporations. He introduced an amendment to the spending bill to ensure the arrangement carries over to ANWR.

"It would be appropriate, just and meritorious action of Congress to keep these revenues within the spirit of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act," Cole said as the amendment was approved by a voice vote. He said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) asked him to add the language to the bill.

"It's good, obviously, Mr. Young's state and for the Native peoples of that state," Cole said of development in ANWR. The committee, in a separate action, rejected a Democratic amendment that would have blocked development in ANWR.

"We're not relitigating that," remarked Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California), who chairs the subcommittee that writes the funding bill.

According to Cole, who is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, the federal government would receive 50 percent of the royalties from mineral development in ANWR. The state of Alaska would get 47 percent, with the remaining 3 percent going to Native corporations.

The royalties are separate from any leases, agreements or other arrangements that ASRC or KIC might enter into for development on their lands within ANWR.

The Gwich'in people in Alaska oppose development out of fear that it will destroy the caribou herd at the center of their way of life. The land within ANWR where the caribou give birth is known as Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit, or The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

“We refuse to accept this decision and we will continue to defend our sacred lands," Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, which represents Gwich’in communities in the United States and Canada, said when Congress approved development.

"Our identity is tied to this land and the beings that roam it, therefore we will stop at nothing until the calving grounds of the Porcupine River caribou herd are fully protected," Demientieff added.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs

If confirmed by the Senate, Tara Sweeney wouldn't just be known as the first Alaska Native to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. She'd be just the second woman in that role -- the first was Ada Deer, a citizen of the Menominee Nation who served between 1993 and 1997.

Sweeney would also be one of the few Assistant Secretary picks without a connection to Oklahoma. Of the 12 confirmed Assistant Secretaries, half have been citizens of tribes based in Oklahoma, or had a parent from an Oklahoma-based tribe.

The last confirmed Assistant Secretary was Kevin Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. He announced his departure in December 2015, toward the end of the Obama administration.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency that also includes the Bureau of Indian Education, has been overseen by an "acting" Assistant Secretary since then, or by other political officials at the Department of the Interior.

The list of confirmed Assistant Secretaries since the post's creation in 1977, follows:
• 1977–1978: Forrest Gerard (Blackfeet Nation)
• 1979–1981: William E. Hallett (Ohkay Owingeh and Navajo Nation)
• 1981–1984: Kenneth L. Smith (Warm Springs Tribes)
• 1985–1989: Ross Swimmer (Cherokee Nation)
• 1989–1993: Eddie Frank Brown (Pascua Yaqui Tribe and Tohono O'odham Nation)
• 1993–1997: Ada E. Deer (Menominee Nation)
• 1997–2001: Kevin Gover (Pawnee Nation)
• 2001–2003: Neal A. McCaleb (Chickasaw Nation)
• 2004–2005: Dave Anderson (Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and Choctaw Nation)
• 2007–2008: Carl J. Artman (Oneida Nation)
• 2009–2012: Larry Echo Hawk (Pawnee Nation)
• 2012–2015: Kevin K. Washburn (Chickasaw Nation)

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