Native Sun News: Obama administration skirts Indian preference

The following story was written and reported by Karin Eagle, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and President Obama. Jewell has recently dropped an Indian Preference for a high position within the Interior, contrary to the IRA of 1934.

Indian Preference hiring thrown under the bus
By Karin Eagle
Native Sun News Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Indian Preference is a term that is often misunderstood and is mistakenly identified with Affirmative Action. Written into law in the 1930’s it is now coming under fire once again at the federal level.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 included wording that called for an Indian Preference requirement when hiring for positions in the Interior Department that directly relate to the services to Indians. This year, that requirement has been brought to question, and all but tossed out of the window.

On March 31, 2008, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an opinion in Indian Educators Federation v. Kempthorne, D.D.C., Civ. No. 14-01215 (TFH), which concludes that Indian Preference applies to “all positions in the Interior Department that directly and primarily relate to the provision of services to Indians.”

This is a broader application of Indian Preference than is currently being made by the Interior Department. The Department currently applies Indian Preference only to positions in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and to positions that have been transferred out of the BIA to other offices that continue to perform the same functions.

The Court’s ruling was applied proactively only and did not affect those employees who were in their positions at the time they were hired or promoted or reassigned into positions subject to Indian Preference.

Under the Obama Administration and DOI Secretary Salazar order 3309 they moved the first, Highest ranking BIA IT Security Job to the Office of the Secretary of the Interior and did not include Indian Preference as required by the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs was sued by Eloise Cobell and her team broke into the DOI/BIA/Trust computer networks and systems because they lacked Security. The BIA was reorganized and split into the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST), expanded the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs (AS-IA) office to include Information Technology.

In the job advertisements created and posted the Secretary of Interior removed Indian Preference in employment forms from the OST and AS-IA. They filled the OST and AS-IA positions with non-Indians. In 2008, the Indian Educators Federation sued Secretary Kempthorne of DOI. The court expanded Indian Preference to ASIA, OST, and DOI.

A portion of the job announcement for the ASIA reads, “The Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs, within the DOI Office of the Secretary, is the lead agency for the United States in carrying on a government-to-government relationship with the tribal nations. A challenging and dynamic place to work, it enhances the quality of life, promotes economic opportunity, and carries out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes and Alaska Natives.”

“This position serves as the Director, Office of Information Security and Privacy, located in the Indian Affairs Information Technology (IAIT), Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs. The IAIT develops policies promoting the effective use of information and information processing resources throughout Indian Affairs; conducts Information System Security activities; develops information technology investment review processes; and evaluates the efficiency of major information processing systems.”

This is not the first time the Interior Department has been called out on non-compliance with the Indian Preference portion of the IRA of 1934.

On July 19, 2004, a complaint was filed that challenged the Secretary of the Interior's interpretation of Section 12 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, 25 U.S.C. § 472 (1976). IEF claimed that the Secretary was unlawfully failing to apply Section 12—which mandates employment preferences for American Indians (commonly referred to as the “Indian preference”)—to positions outside the Bureau of Indian Affairs, particularly positions in the Office of Special Trustee for American Indians (“OST”) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary—Indian Affairs (“AS-IA”).

The Court concluded that a declaratory judgment was sufficient remedy in light of all the facts and circumstances as they presently stand; however, if the Secretary fails to comply with the declaratory judgment, then IEF would be acting well within its rights to request that it be addressed.

(Contact Karin Eagle at

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