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

Bureau of Indian Affairs finally lands a leader in the Trump era

A day after Tara Sweeney was confirmed, but before she could be sworn into her post at the Department of the Interior, the Trump administration has withdrawn an Obama-era legal opinion that had affirmed the rights of tribes in Alaska, her home state, to restore their homelands. Interior says it has to solicit more comments from Alaska Natives before moving forward, a process that is expected to take at least one year.

The original legal opinion, M-37043, was written by Hillary Tompkins, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who was the first Native American to serve as the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior.

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More than 18 months into the Trump administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs finally has a new leader and it's a historic choice.

Tara Sweeney is the first Alaska Native to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, a political position at the Department of the Interior. She's also the first woman in the post in two decades.

"Tara Sweeney is ready, she is beyond ready," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said on the Senate floor on Thursday.

"Indian Country is united in support of her," Murkowski added.

The Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest organization of its kind in the state, as well as the National Congress of American Indians, the largest Indian organization in the U.S., have endorsed Sweeney.

"The Office of the Assistant Secretary—Indian Affairs is a key office in the fiduciary responsibility of the federal government to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes," NCAI said in a statement. "Congratulations to Ms. Sweeney on her confirmation, and we look forward to working together with the Assistant Secretary as she transitions into office."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Confirms Tara Sweeney as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs

Murkowski spoke just a couple of hours before the chamber took action on Sweeney's nomination. She was confirmed as the Assistant Secretary by a voice vote in the early evening -- there were no objections to her.

“The Senate’s confirmation of Ms. Sweeney is an important step to help ensure Indian Country has a strong leader and advocate at the Interior Department,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a press release.

“Ms. Sweeney will be a powerful voice for Indian nations as she supports Secretary Zinke in upholding tribal sovereignty, promoting Native American self-determination and carrying out the federal government’s trust responsibility to Indian tribes and Indians,” Hoeven continued, referring to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the leader of the department.

"Excited to have Tara Sweeney confirmed as Assistant Secretary for @USIndianAffairs. She is the first Alaska Native woman to hold the position. A historic day for Alaska and America!" Zinke wrote in a post on Twitter after the Senate's vote.

But as Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) noted on the Senate floor, making history took a lot of work. After her nomination was announced by President Donald Trump last October, he said concerns were raised about her Native background.

Like all of her predecessors since 1977, Sweeney, who is Inupiat, is Native American. She is enrolled in the Native Village of Barrow, a federally-recognized tribe.

But it was her ties to the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation that created headaches. It took more than six months for her to secure a confirmation hearing -- a record delay for the position -- because Sullivan said federal ethics officials questioned her stake in the Alaska Native entity.

"They started to seemingly almost hold it against her," Sullivan said as delay piled up.

But unlike other presidential nominees who could easily sell, divest or re-direct their business interests, Sweeney is in a unique position. Congress created the Alaska Native corporate system and forcing her to give up her shares would be akin to asking someone to renounce their tribal ties, according to her supporters.

"You can't sell the shares," Sullivan noted.

And if Alaska Native shareholders were held to a different standard than other nominees, "you would rule out an entire class of people ... from serving in the federal government," he said.

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 merely being an Alaska Native shareholder wasn't the only holdup. Democrats pointed out that she has served as a top executive for Arctic Slope, which has significant energy development interests that are affected by decisions made by the federal government.

More specifically, Sweeney has repeatedly pressed Congress to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in her home state to oil and gas drilling. The decades-long effort finally succeeded last December, when development provisions were included in a tax reform bill that became law despite excluding Indian Country's other interests.

"When I start to name names, I think of Tara Sweeney and the folks who have been there year in and year out, those who have been supportive by traveling here and those who call and those who write," Murkwoski said on the Senate floor in singling out the Native executive.

With the Trump administration adamantly on board with development in ANWR, Sweeney faced questions about her ability to serve in government. while standing to gain financially from actions in Washington. But she has vowed to recuse herself from decisions affecting Arctic Slope, according to an ethics letter sent to Interior in March.

She reiterated the pledge during her confirmation hearing last month. "It's the right thing to do," she told Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Tara Sweeney Confirmation Hearing - Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs

According to a disclosure on file with the Office of Government Ethics, Sweeney owns shares in Arctic Slope as well as in Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation, another Native corporation. She also disclosed that her son inherited stock in Olgoonik Corporation, another Native entity.

In her Interior ethics letter, Sweeney said she would transfer her Ukpeagvik shares to her children "within 90 days of confirmation."

"Until I complete the transfer of these shares, I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that to my knowledge has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation, unless I first obtain a written waiver," she wrote in the letter.

Sweeney did not make a similar promise in the letter about her Arctic Slope stock, instead saying that she will seek a "written waiver" in order to maintain her "inherited financial interest" in the corporation.

"Until I have obtained such a waiver, I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that to my knowledge has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of this entity," Sweeney pledged.

With her family and supporters sitting behind her, Tara Sweeney went before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 9, 2018, for her confirmation to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. Photo: SCIA

Though the Arctic Slope stock does not appear to be a big ticket item, it helps her family. She disclosed yearly income from it in the range of $15,001 to $50,000 and said the payment range accounts for dividends "made to me and my dependent children."

Her employment as an executive vice president, on the other hand, represents a larger source of income. In 2017, she was paid $1 million according to the disclosure form.

On top of that, she receives payments from Arctic Slope as part of an "Employee Incentive Program." That payment is in the range of $250,001 to $500,000, another large sum. A separate payment from "Long-Term Incentive Plan" falls in the same range.

However, Sweeney said she will not accept either incentive payment while she serves in the Trump administration.

"I will not accept any such payment and will forfeit it unless I receive the payment before I assume the duties of the position of Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs," she wrote in the ethics disclosure regarding both programs.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs
With confirmation at hand, Tara Sweeney isn't just the first Alaska Native to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. She's only the second woman in that role -- the first was Ada Deer, a citizen of the Menominee Nation who served between 1993 and 1997.

"This has been a long and exhaustive process, but we always knew Tara was up for the challenge," Rex A. Rock Sr., the president and CEO of Arctic Slope said in a statement on Thursday.

"We are all so proud of her, and look forward to her tenacity and fearless leadership while serving those in Indian Country," Rock added.

Sweeney is also one of the few Assistant Secretary picks without a connection to Oklahoma. Of the 12 prior 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)

Indianz.Com on YouTube: Tara Sweeney Speaks at the Alaska Federation of Natives

In Her Own Words
Following confirmation by the Senate on Thursday, Alaska's Congressional delegation issued a statement which included reaction from Tara Sweeney. Most of the remarks were drawn from a press release issued by the Department of the Interior last October but it also included some new comments:
“I am honored to be confirmed to serve Indian Country in this capacity. My goal is to develop strong relationships with Tribes, Alaska Native corporations, and Native Hawaiian Organizations to work on innovative solutions for lifting up our communities. I am motivated to work with Indian Country to find efficiencies inside the Bureau of Indian Affairs, improve service delivery and culturally relevant curriculum in the Bureau of Indian Education, and create a more effective voice for Tribes throughout the Federal Government. Thank you to Senators Murkowski and Sullivan, Congressman [Don] Young, AFN, and NCAI for their unwavering support. I am also thankful for the bipartisan support for my nomination. I am humbled by the confidence President Trump and Secretary Zinke have shown in me and I am ready to serve.”

After she was nominated, Sweeney also took to the stage at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage right after the announcement. She has served on the board of the organization, the largest of its kind in the state, since 2007, and has served as its co-chair.

"I'm honored to be nominated for this position and for those who know me, you know that I will be working very hard," Sweeney said on October 19, 2017.

"I certainly am up for the task if confirmed," she said.

Reaction from the Twitterverse
Responses from social media were mixed -- many congratulatory but others concerned about the Trump administration's energy development push, and how Tara Sweeney fits into that agenda.

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