President Barack Obama
plans to name a Native woman to serve as the top legal official for the Interior Department
Secretary Ken Salazar
said on Wednesday.
Speaking to tribal leaders in Washington, D.C., Salazar said the expected nominee is a member of the Navajo Nation
. He didn't mention her name but sources identified her as Hilary Tompkins
, a prominent attorney from New Mexico.
"We are just now in the process of getting her vetted," Salazar said at a summit held by the Council of Energy Resource Tribes
Salazar described Tompkins, who was adopted at birth, as someone Indian Country "can be very proud of." If nominated and confirmed as Solicitor General of the Interior
Tompkins would be making history as the first Native woman and the first Native American to serve in the post.
Tompkins currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law
where she is sharing her experience in tribal-state relations. It's an area she knows well, having served as chief counsel to Gov. Bill Richardson
(D) from 2005 to 2008 and as his deputy counsel from 2003 to 2005.
As the first Native American chief counsel, Tompkins helped Richardson hire and appoint a record number of Native Americans, both in his cabinet and in agencies, boards and commissions. She oversaw the elevation of the state's Indian agency to a secretarial position, the first in the nation, as the governor supported a record number of Indian bills in
the New Mexico Legislature
Tompkins and the legal team also sought to extend their influence to other states by taking a pro-Indian stance in a controversial U.S. Supreme Court
case. Shortly after taking office, Richardson filed a
brief in Inyo
County v. Bishop Paiute Tribe
in defense of tribal rights.
"It's something we're really proud of," Tompkins, whose name appeared on the brief, told High Country News
in an April 2003 article. The move prompted other states to sign onto tribal-friendly briefs, a big
shift since states have historically sided against tribal interests in Supreme Court cases.
Salazar, in his remarks yesterday, didn't say when Obama would nominate Tompkins. But he expected her to complete the vetting process "very soon."
Salazar also said an announcement for a new leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs
is in the works. Tribal leaders expect Larry EchoHawk
, a member of the Pawnee Nation
Oklahoma and a longtime friend of Salazar's to be named assistant secretary for Indian affairs.
Currently, Salazar is the sole confirmed nominee at Interior. Though Obama has named a deputy secretary, the position remains unfilled, along with a slew of other top jobs.
In testimony to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee
last month, Salazar said a Native candidate is being considered as Commissioner for the Bureau of
"We'll also be appointing other people to positions that are not traditionally held by Native Americans," Salazar said yesterday.
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