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In his first appearance before Congress, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
on Thursday said President Barack Obama
good on his promise to include Native Americans at the highest
levels of the federal government.
Within the Interior Department
tribal members are typically tapped for leadership posts
at the Bureau of Indian Affairs
, the Office of the Special Trustee for
, the National
Indian Gaming Commission
But Salazar said the Obama administration is vetting
Native American candidates as Solicitor of the Interior
as Commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation
"Those are not traditional positions for Native Americans to
hold within the department,"
Salazar noted in his testimony to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee
"But I think the people that we have here, that hopefully
will get confirmed by this Senate in the next month or two,
are the kind of '800-pound gorillas' that you want to
work on the major problems that face the department,"
Salazar did not mention names but he said he extended offers
to Native candidates for both positions.
If the nominations move forward, it would set a precedent
for Interior and for Indian Country.
The Solicitor is the top attorney at the department
and someone with a strong Indian law
background could bring about a
big shift in policy. The last administration saw the birth of negative
legal opinions and views about sacred sites, Indian trust management,
the federal-tribal trust relationship and Indian preference.
Additionally, the Office of the Solicitor under the last administration
was criticized by the department's Inspector General
for failing to ensure top officials followed the law.
Several former officials, including Interior's second-in-command,
pleaded guilty for ethical lapses.
As for Reclamation, a Native candidate could provide a tribal
voice in a wide range of issues, from water rights settlements
to fishing rights to irrigation projects. Under
the Bush administration, tribes in the Klamath Basin of
northern California and southern Oregon lost out big when it
came to water management policies.
The Solicitor and Reclamation
picks would join Larry EchoHawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of
Oklahoma, as the expected
assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. The White House
has not made a formal announcement but key members of Congress,
tribal advocates and a former member of Obama's transition
team have touted him as the nominee.
So far, Salazar is the only Senate-confirmed nominee at
Interior. David Hayes is awaiting consideration as
deputy secretary, the number two position at the department.
Sen. Byron Dorgan
(D-North Dakota), the chairman of
the Indian Affairs Committee, pressed Salazar
to fill the leadership
positions, citing a void during the Bush administration
that left the top BIA post for over three years.
Three people held the assistant secretary job under
the last president, with none lasting more than 18 months.
"I know there are some wonderful people that work in the BIA but
I could tell you stories that just make you
furious about the lack of things getting done over there,"
said Dorgan, who cited energy development as one area of
Interior, often seen as one of the less prestigious of
has already benefited from high-level attention under the new
Last month, Obama
brought Salazar to the White House last month
to highlight efforts to clean up the department after
being connected to a slew of corruption scandals.
Earlier this week, First Lady Michelle Obama
star power to the department and touted her husband's
initiatives to elevate Indian policy.
The visit came after the president announced the hiring
of a Native woman to serve in a top post at the White House,
with another Native appointment expected in the coming weeks.
HEARING to receive the views of Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, on
matters of Indian affairs
(February 12, 2009)
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