Tara Sweeney, the newly-installed Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, poses with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke at Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo: U.S. DOI

Tara Sweeney quietly takes helm at Bureau of Indian Affairs

Following inquires from Indianz.Com, the Department of the Interior on Thursday morning announced Tara Sweeney's arrival in Washington, D.C.

“Tara is a results-driven team leader and coalition builder who has an impressive combination of business acumen and service to her community,” Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in a press release. “Her lifelong active engagement in Native American policy development and her outreach, advocacy, and organization skills are the combination we need to carry out the President’s reform initiative for Indian Country. She will be a great asset to the Department."

“I am honored to be able to serve Indian Country in this capacity,” Tara Sweeney said. “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. I am humbled by the confidence President Trump and Secretary Zinke have shown in me and ready to serve.”
Tara Sweeney is making history as the first Alaska Native, and the first woman in two decades, to oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But there's been no official acknowledgment of this from the Trump administration.

Not a press release from the Department of the Interior. Or the BIA.

Not even a post from the social-media savvy Secretary of the Interior, whose Twitter feed is currently dominated by his views of the devastation (and the alleged causes) of the wildfires in California.

Instead, Sweeney has been quietly serving as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs without pomp, circumstance or celebration for more than two weeks. She started working in Washington, D.C., on July 30, one tribal advocate said.

So why the silence from the nation's capital?

Another tribal advocate who is close to the BIA suggested it had something to do with a series of ongoing sessions on some sensitive and controversial topics in Alaska. The meetings began shortly before Sweeney came on board and they consist of an agenda seemingly set in stone without her input or influence.

"Maybe they figured it would get people riled up with all the Alaska consultations," the advocate said.

But Sweeney isn't being kept out of the loop, or being hidden from Indian Country, according to one official at Interior. Instead, this person discussed the lack of publicity as being about timing.

Zinke has wanted to announce Sweeney's arrival at least with a photo of her being sworn in, like the one he did for his top deputy a year ago this month, the official said. That was hard to accomplish during the week of July 30 because the Secretary and John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, were in Minnesota to help the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe dedicate a long-awaited high school.

Since then, there's been a whirlwind of high-profile activity at Interior. But none of it has involved Sweeney -- Zinke's been traveling around the country, focusing on monuments, parks, those wildfires and other priorities largely outside of the Indian Affairs agenda.

"He was on travel," the official said of the Secretary.

"The timing has been horrible," the person said. "The stars have not lined up."

Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who joined the Trump administration almost a year ago, meanwhile has been serving as the public face for an extremely unpopular initiative -- a reorganization that Indian Country is largely against. The BIA has held three of those sessions since Sweeney came on board, including one back in her home state of Alaska, but she hasn't participated in any of them, saving her from facing criticism in her first weeks on the job.

But while Sweeney has been muzzled on the public relations front, she has been active on the official front. Her name and her title of "Assistant Secretary--Indian Affairs" appears on not just one but two documents that were published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, and that's about as official in Washington as one can get.

She's also been meeting with top staff and diving deep into the BIA's organization and structure in advance of her pledge to spend the first few months in the field with Indian Country. Her background as an executive in a large Alaska Native corporation is expected to come in handy as she has been tasked, by one of her biggest champions, to clean up the "mess" at the agency and "shake it up."

"Put politics aside -- Indian Affairs is the department of self-determination and I am committed to upholding the trust responsibility to Indian Country, to ensuring that the federal government is in fact fulfilling that responsibility and advocating for that inside the administration," Sweeney, who is Inupiat, said during her confirmation hearing on May 9.

Sweeney was confirmed as the 13th Assistant Secretary on June 28, a development hailed as historic because of her Alaska Native heritage and her gender. But unlike almost all of her predecessors, she did not show up in Washington right away, with BIA employees hearing conflicting yet persistent rumors about her arrival.

Prior Assistant Secretary nominees were usually sworn in quickly after securing confirmation. Neal McCaleb, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation who served during the beginning years of the George W. Bush administration, went to work on the July 4 holiday in 2001, just five days after being approved in the Senate.

The situation with Sweeney, on the other hand, has been unusual, especially since Secretary Zinke blamed Democrats for allegedly delaying her nomination. Coming from Alaska, she made a farther journey than most of her predecessors.

But now that Sweeney is on board an official announcement, press release or tweet of some sort is expected, perhaps as soon as Thursday. And there are plans for a public swearing-in, a celebration to which tribes will be invited, the likes of which haven't been seen since the beginning of the Obama era.

Upcoming meetings
The Bureau of Indian Affairs in the midst of major change, with proposals to do away with the existing 12 regions coming under fire in controversy in the lower 48. Three consultations remain on the schedule and tribes have been told that the August 31 cut-off date for comments will probably be extended.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018
9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Rapid City, South Dakota
Best Western Ramkota Hotel and Convention Center
2111 N. LaCrosse Street
Rapid City, SD 57701

Thursday, August 23, 2018
1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Seattle, Washington
Jackson Federal Building
North Auditorium
915 2nd Avenue
Seattle, WA 98174

Additionally, the land-into-trust process in Alaska has been put on hold for at least year while the Trump administration talks to tribes and Alaska Native corporations, which are not governments. The BIA is also taking comments about the federal recognition of tribes in Alaska.

Upcoming sessions are taking place in Anchorage on October 17 and October 21, in Bethel on December 5 and in Kotzebue on December 7. Land-into-trust and federal recognition will be discussed at different times on those dates.

Additionally, the BIA is holding two telephone conferences on Wednesday, December 12, 2018, to discuss the same issues. The call about federal recognition takes place from 10am to noon, to be followed by a discussion about land-into-trust from 1pm to 3pm. The call-in number for both sessions is 877-716-4291, with the passcode: 6919058.

Tara Sweeney's confirmation hearing to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs took place before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 9, 2018. Photo: SCIA

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs
Tara Mac Lean 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.

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

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