Jean Carol Hovland has been nominated to serve as the Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans by President Donald Trump. Photo: South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations

Top Indian positions in Trump administration remain without leaders

Tribal leaders are complaining about a lack of leadership in key Indian policy posts but one of them might soon be filled.

Jean Carol Hovland, a citizen of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, has been nominated to serve as the Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans, a top position at the Department of Health and Human Services. If confirmed by the Senate, she would oversee key programs in areas like Native language preservation, economic development and Native youth empowerment.

Hovland currently serves as the tribal relations advisor to Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota). According to the White House, she has worked on the Tribal Law and Order Act and on legislation to reform the Indian Health Service, an issue of great importance in South Dakota and neighboring Great Plains Area states.

President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Hovland on February 13. Her nomination was sent to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on February 15.

Historically, the committee has worked quickly to confirm a president's nominees, regardless of party. That hasn't been the case with the current crop.

Last fall, Trump nominated tribal citizens to fill the leadership posts at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service. But neither Tara Sweeney, his pick for Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, nor Robert Weaver, who has been announced as director of the IHS, has secured a confirmation hearing before the committee amid questions about their qualifications.

"We keep hearing positive signs on one hand and negative on the other," President Jefferson Keel of the National Congress of American Indians said of the stalled nominations.

"We just don't know," Keel said at the organization's winter session in Washington, D.C., last Tuesday. "That is inexcusable."

The Trump administration has defended both nominees as well-suited for the jobs. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who would be Sweeney's boss, went to bat for her at NCAI’s meeting, noting that she would be the first Alaska Native to serve in the BIA post.

"I spoke to the president and we have the full support of the White House," Zinke said of Sweeney's nomination.

"To say that you can't be a Native Alaskan to represent Native Alaskans is unconscionable," he said last Tuesday. "It's like saying the only people that can't represent the [tribal] nations are the nations. That's exactly opposite."

"I have confidence in Tara and we're doing everything we can to get her in there and to get her through," added Zinke, the leader of the Department of the Interior.

Tara Sweeney, who is Inupiat from Alaska, has been nominated to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs but has not secured a confirmation hearing in the Senate. Photo: Frode Overland Andersen / Utenriksdepartementet

Sweeney is from Alaska, where she is well known for her work on the Alaska Federation of Natives. Mere mention of her name by Zinke drew applause from Alaskans who were at the NCAI meeting last week.

Weaver is from Oklahoma and has reached out to tribes in the Great Plains Area to hear their concerns about the substandard quality of care in their region. His own tribe is also standing behind him.

"In addition to deep and genuine relationships Robert has developed with Indian tribes over the years, I believe his perspective as a non-physician business executive will go a long way in guiding the IHS through its current difficulties," Chairman John Berrey said in a February 5 letter to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The BIA has gone without a Senate-confirmed Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs since January 2016. The IHS has gone without one even longer -- an "acting" director has led the agency since February 2015.

The ANA has been without a Senate-confirmed commissioner since October 2016.

Robert Weaver, a citizen of the Quapaw Tribe, was nominated to serve as director of the Indian Health Service but has not secured a confirmation hearing in the Senate. Courtesy photo

Elsewhere in the Trump administration, the only tribal citizen in a Senate-confirmed position is R. Trent Shores, who hails from the Choctaw Nation. He serves as the U.S. Attorney for Northern Oklahoma.

There are tribal citizens in other leadership jobs within the president's administration. The list includes John Tahsuda, citizen of the Kiowa Tribe whose title is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs; Billy Kirkland, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who serves as the Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House; and Ben Keel, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation who was recently moved out of the White House to serve as director of the Office of Tribal Relations at the Department of Agriculture.

Biographical information about Jean Carol Hovland, provided by the White House, follows:
Ms. Hovland, an enrolled member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux, currently serves as the Tribal Affairs Advisor to Senator John Thune (R-SD). She began her career with Senator Thune in 2005 as the Native American Outreach Coordinator, meeting regularly with Tribal leaders, Tribal program personnel, and Tribal community members in the Great Plains Region. Ms. Hovland played a key role in developing the Tribal Law and Order Act, the Tribal Veterans Health Care Enhancement Act, and the Restoring Accountability in the Indian Health Service Act of 2017. Prior to her employment with Senator Thune, Ms. Hovland was CEO of Wanji Native Nations Consultants which offered training services for Tribal programs and Tribal governments pertaining to homeland security, emergency management, stress management, and time management. She enjoys spending time with family and friends, fishing, traveling, and attending her son’s Special Olympics activities.

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