First Lady makes historic Interior Department visit

Hundreds of Interior Department employees cheered First Lady Michelle Obama as she promoted her husband's agenda on Monday.

The employees packed the department's auditorium in Washington, D.C., to hear Mrs. Obama, who is visiting all of the federal agencies. She praised them for their public service and encouraged them to stay committed to their goals.

"For those of you focused on meeting the federal government's obligations to the Native Americans, understand that you have a wonderful partner in the White House right now," the first lady said to heavy applause.

To fulfill one of his campaign promises, President Barack Obama plans to appoint a high-level Indian policy adviser. He has already hired Jodi Archambault Gillette, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, to work in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

"Barack has pledged to honor the unique government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government," Mrs. Obama said, "and he'll soon appoint a policy adviser to his senior White House staff to work with tribes and across the government on these issues such as sovereignty, health care and education -- all central to the well being of Native American families and the prosperity of tribes all across this country."

The first lady's historic visit was accompanied by an honor song from the Black Bear Singers, a Washington-area drum group. Her husband was adopted into the Crow Tribe of Montana during a campaign appearance to the reservation last May, a first for a president.

Mrs. Obama was also given a shawl made by Marianne Hannsom, a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee who is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Nedra Darling, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation of Kansas who serves as communications director at the agency, presented the gift to the first lady during the ceremony.

The attention came as tribal leaders are meeting in the nation's capitol to promote their agendas. The United South and Eastern Tribes, the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Education Association are all hosting events this week.

Many are still waiting for an official announcement about the new assistant secretary for Indian affairs. Larry EchoHawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, is expected to be the president's pick to lead the BIA.

Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma who served on Obama's transition team, discussed the pending nomination at the USET meeting yesterday. He described EchoHawk as someone with an "extraordinary resume" and "fine integrity."

Responding indirectly to criticism about EchoHawk's record on Indian gaming, Harper urged tribal leaders to "hear him out." Harper said EchoHawk is a strong choice due to his longtime friendship with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

"A successful assistant secretary for Indian affairs is one that has the trust and the confidence of the secretary," said Harper.

Jackie Johnson, NCAI's executive director, relayed similar observations about the potential nominee. "Larry EchoHawk is someone that Salazar feels close to and is confident in," she told attendees of the USET meeting.

In addition to a new assistant secretary, Obama will be nominating people to lead the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians and the National Indian Gaming Commission. All three posts require Senate confirmation.

The OST is currently in the hands of Donna Erwin, a career employee who took over after Ross Swimmer, a Cherokee Nation member, resigned at the end of the Bush administration. The NIGC is still being overseen by Phil Hogen, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and a Bush nominee.

Interior Department Visit:
Audio of First Lady Michelle Obama (February 9, 2009)

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