Tara Sweeney. Photo: Navajo Nation Washington Office
National | Politics

Alaska Native executive Tara Sweeney named to top Bureau of Indian Affairs job

President Donald Trump is making history with the nomination of an Alaska Native to serve as the leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Tara Sweeney, an executive from the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, was announced for the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs post late on Monday. If confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first Alaskan to run the agency and the only the second woman in its history.

“Tara has a very strong record of professionalism and accomplishment in Alaska, across the country, and internationally, especially with the indigenous people of the circumpolar north. She has significant experience on Arctic issues and chaired the Arctic Economic Council," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in response to the nomination." "She is an expert on energy, infrastructure, broadband, economic development, Native self-determination, and a wide range of policy issues that will come before her."

Other members of Alaska's all-Republican Congressional delegation were just as excited about the selection. Sweeney, who is from Utqiaġvik, an Inupiat village also known as Barrow, was among those rumored for the job, which has been vacant since January 2016.

“This is an absolutely outstanding choice,” said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). “Tara’s knowledge, experience and leadership will go a long way in straightening out the BIA, allowing it to run more efficiently for the good of all First Americans. She has extensive experience not only in business, but also within Alaska Native groups and organizations."

Sweeney is well known for her advocacy on a wide range of Native issues in Alaska. She has served on the board of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest tribal organization in the state, since 2007. Up until this year, she was chair of the Arctic Economic Council, an international group that focuses on economic issues in the Arctic.

Sweeney also has pushed for Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy development. Her corporation, Arctic Slope, owns subsurface rights and the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation owns surface rights to land within ANWR where development could occur. Native residents anticipate jobs, revenues and economic growth if Congress takes action.

Democrats, environmental groups and the Gwich'in people have long opposed drilling in the refuge. But it's one of the Trump administration's new priorities and Sweeney's addition to the team signals a new focus on issues in Alaska, home to more than 220 tribes, plus regional and village Native corporations.

"With her long history of advocating for Alaska Native cultural values, rights, and economic opportunity, I can’t think of anyone better to have as our nation’s next Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs," said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).

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The announcement, long awaited in Indian policy circles, came on the opening day of the National Congress of American Indians 74th annual convention. But the news from the White House was as a surprise to BIA officials who are in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, all week for the meeting.

John Tahsuda, the "acting" Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, spoke to NCAI earlier in the day but did not give any hints of the nomination. Instead, he announced the appointment of Bryan Rice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, as the director of the BIA.

“I know he’s going to do great," said Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who joined the Trump team last month.

Tahsuda's official title is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. It's a political-level post at the BIA but one that does not require Senate confirmation.

Tahsuda took on the title of "acting" Assistant Secretary earlier this month and is the second person to hold the title since the start of the Trump administration in January. He also was rumored to be interested in the Assistant Secretary job.

Sweeney's nomination is being referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Murkowski serves on the committee.

The following is biographical information on Sweeney, provided by the White House:
Ms. Sweeney is the executive vice president of external affairs for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), the largest locally owned and operated business in Alaska, owned by approximately 13,000 Iñupiat Eskimo members and 12,000 employees worldwide. Ms. Sweeney grew up in rural Alaska and has spent a lifetime advocating for responsible Indian energy policy, rural connectivity, Arctic growth, and Native American self-determination. Ms. Sweeney served as chair of the Arctic Economic Council from 2015-2017. In 2013, Ms. Sweeney served as the co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and 2003, Ms. Sweeney served as special assistant for rural affairs and education in Governor Frank Murkowski’s administration. Honored in 2008 as a “Top Forty Under 40″ business leader, Ms. Sweeney was also inducted into the Anchorage ATHENA Society in 2017. A graduate of Cornell University, Ms. Sweeney currently lives in Anchorage with her family. Ms. Sweeney is tribal member of the Native Village of Barrow and the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.