Tara Sweeney is seen in 2015 in her former role as chair of the Arctic Economic Council. Photo: Frode Overland Andersen / UD

National Congress of American Indians looks forward to Tara Sweeney confirmation

The National Congress of American Indians is looking forward to the "swift confirmation" of Tara Sweeney as the new leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Sweeney, an executive from the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, was announced as the Trump administration's Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs late Monday. If confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first Alaskan to run the BIA and the only the second woman to do so in its history.

“The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs is charged with the federal responsibility to protect tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and the trust relationship,” NCAI President Brian Cladoosby said on Tuesday. “This nomination is an important step by the administration, and we look forward a swift confirmation by the United States Senate.”

The announcement from the White House came after months of inaction by President Donald Trump. His two predecessors, Democrat and Republican, already had their Assistant Secretary picks in place by this time in their first terms in office.

“We appreciate the administration’s commitment to efficiently staffing important positions within governmental departments directly effecting Indian Country, and we look forward to hearing from Ms. Sweeney about her goals and plans for working with tribal leaders to ensure the government-to-government relationship is upheld,” said Cladoosby.

Tara Sweeney is seen in 2008 with the late former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). "A historic day for Alaska!" a post on the Facebook page of The Ted Stevens Foundation read. Photo: The Ted Stevens Foundation

In a press release from the Department of the Interior, Sweeney, who is Inupiat from Utqiaġvik, a village also known as Barrow, offered some specific examples of her goals. She plans to work with tribes to explore "efficiencies" at the BIA and to develop "culturally relevant curriculum" at the Bureau of Indian Education.

In addition to reaching out to tribes, Sweeney said she aims to develop "strong relationships" with Alaska Native corporations and Native Hawaiian organizations. Alaska is home to more than 220 tribes that enjoy a government-to-government relationship with the United States, plus regional and village Native corporations that were established pursuant to an act of Congress.

“Tara is a dedicated, hard-working and fearless leader focused on providing value and real results across local, national and international boundaries,” Gabriel Kompkoff, the president of the ANCSA Regional Association, said in the department's press release. “Her passion shows through in every challenge she faces.”

Native Hawaiian organizations represent the island's original inhabitants but at this point Congress has declined to extend the policy of self-determination to them. Prior Assistant Secretary nominees have mentioned Native Hawaiians but, in what appears to be a first, the department included a statement of support from a Hawaiian leader who mentioned the "first peoples" of the United States.

"Ms Sweeney is an incredibly qualified nominee," said Robin Puanani Danner, the policy chair for the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. "Her business experience, the cultural grounding of her Inuit people, and her keen understanding of living in some of the most remote Native areas in the country will serve all first peoples in her role at the Department of Interior."

Sweeney's nomination will be referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which is expected to hold a hearing in the coming weeks. Historically, most Assistant Secretary picks see bipartisan support at the committee level and most end up being confirmed with unanimous or near unanimous support.

While Sweeney awaits action, the BIA is being led by John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who is serving as the "acting" Assistant Secretary. His official title is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, a post that did not require Senate confirmation.

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