Tara Sweeney, who is Inupiat from Alaska, has been nominated to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior. Photo: Frode Overland Andersen / Utenriksdepartementet

Bureau of Indian Affairs nominee finally lands confirmation hearing

It's actually happening -- Tara Sweeney, the Trump administration's nominee to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- is finally getting her day on Capitol Hill.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has scheduled a May 9 confirmation hearing for Sweeney. The date comes more than 6 months after she was nominated to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, a political post at the Department of the Interior.

The original announcement drew praise for its historic nature. If confirmed by the Senate, Sweeney would be the first Alaska Native, and the first woman in more than 20 years, to serve in the leadership role.

But for reasons that remain entirely unexplained to this day, Sweeney's nomination was held up, with the Trump administration and its allies offering shifting reasons for the delay. At first, Secretary Ryan Zinke and top officials at Interior attempted to shame Democrats, many of whom have raised questions about the president's nominees.

"Getting our full team confirmed and in place will help us better address the major issues our nation faces today, especially in Indian Country," Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs John Tahsuda, who is a a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe, said at a hearing on Capitol Hill only a week after Sweeney's announcement.

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 after Sweeney was announced as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in October 2017. Photo: The Ted Stevens Foundation

As the delay stretched into months, Zinke offered another explanation. He said Sweeney's Alaska Native background -- she has served in a leadership role in her Native corporation and she holds shares in the corporation -- was being questioned.

"To say that you can't be a Native Alaskan to represent Native Alaskans is unconscionable," Zinke, who would be Sweeney's boss, told the National Congress of American Indians during its winter session in Washington, D.C., in February. "It's like saying the only people that can't represent the [tribal] nations are the nations. That's exactly opposite."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a supporter of Sweeney, also said the Native corporation connection was an issue. But instead of lashing out at Democrats, the bipartisan-minded lawmaker traced the delay to the Office of Government Ethics, an independent federal agency that helps vet presidential nominees.

Sweeney's situation is unique because Congress created the Native corporate system with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. That's unlike other cases in which a nominee could easily sell, divest or re-direct their business interests.

“No Native person should be asked to sell off, or give up their birthright in order to serve in the administration,” Murkowski told Alaska Public Media in early March.

Going public didn't seem to help Sweeney's cause, though. A story later that month in The Washington Post outed the White House office in charge of the president's nominees as one run by inexperienced staffers who hosted happy hours, played drinking games and smoked electronic cigarettes while on the job.

The next month, another story in Alaska Public Media gave Indian insiders in Washington, D.C., cause to worry. Her husband is in business with a former White House official whose tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave was short enough to raise questions about political retribution playing a role in Sweeney's delay.

Indianz.Com on YouTube: Tara Sweeney at Alaska Federation of Natives

But with the confirmation hearing finally on the schedule, Sweeney can finally share her story with the public. She is well known for her advocacy on a wide range of Native issues, having served on the board of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest organization of its kind in the state, since 2007.

"There is not a tribe or Alaska Native corporation that she would not help, said Julie Kitka, the long-serving president of AFN. "I have had the opportunity to work alongside Ms. Sweeney for over a decade, I’ve seen her in action and she is driven by results.”

Sweeney is also known as an executive for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, one of 13 Native corporations created by Congress. Her work frequently brought her to Washington, D.C., where she long pushed for energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR.

Arctic Slope owns subsurface rights and the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, another Native entity, owns surface rights to land within ANWR where development could occur. Supporters anticipate jobs, revenues and economic growth with oil and gas drilling on their lands.

The effort, though controversial in environmental, Democratic and Native circles, finally paid off late last year, when Congress approved development in the so-called 1002 region of ANWR, an area that includes the Native corporation lands. In remarks on the Senate floor, Murkowski credited Sweeney with helping change minds on Capitol Hill.

"When I start to name names, I think of Tara Sweeney and the folks who have been there year in and year out, those who have been supportive by traveling here and those who call and those who write," Murkowski said in December.

Tara Sweeney, left, is seen in Washington, D.C., in December 2012 with Clara Pratte, then-executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, and Rolf Lundberg, who was with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at the time. Photo :Jared King / Navajo Nation Washington Office

Arctic Slope cheered the move to open ANWR to development, which was included in a tax reform law that otherwise ignored Indian Country's interests. The corporation has been supportive of Sweeney as well.

"I’m pleased to see the federal government is recognizing what Alaskans have known for quite some time – that Tara is a tireless and effective advocate for balanced Native American policy," said Rex A. Rock Sr., the president and CEO of Arctic Slope.

Sweeney's work also has extended beyond Alaska's borders. Up until 2017, Sweeney served as chair of the Arctic Economic Council, an international group that focuses on economic issues in the Arctic.

What's going on at the BIA?

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency that includes the Bureau of Indian Education, has gone without a permanent, political leader since December 2015. That was when Kevin Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and the last Senate-confirmed Assistant Secretary, stepped down from the post toward the end of the Obama administration.

The long stretch without an Assistant Secretary is not unprecedented. During the George W. Bush administration, the post was vacant for two long periods under the former Republican president.

But Indian Country has seen some significant setbacks during the ongoing leadership void, one in which a permanent Assistant Secretary could have helped shifted the debate. For two years in a row, President Donald Trump, a Republican, has sought to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the BIA budget.

"We're losing ground, going back to the Self-Determination Act," Aaron Payment, the vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization in the United States, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last month, referring to the 1975 law that ushered in a new era of federal policy for tribes.

The BIA itself is in disarray, with the most recent director only lasting six months. Bryan Rice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who had been announced for the job on the same day as Sweeney's nomination, resigned last week after being accused of harassing a female subordinate.

The Trump administration refused to comment on Rice's whereabouts despite days of inquiries by Indianz.Com, going back to last Tuesday, when he left the position. It wasn't until the end of the week, when details of the harassment incident were published, that the BIA admitted someone else was serving as director, albeit in a temporary status.

"Thank you, Darryl LaCounte, for stepping in as the Acting @BIADirector! Welcome to BIA Headquarters in Washington, DC," a post on the official @BIADirector Twitter page read on Friday. Just a day earlier, Indianz.Com pointed out that the page still boasted Rice's biography, even though his photo had been removed from the account.

But the BIA headquarters in D.C. isn't the only place where leaders have gone missing. Reporting by Kevin Abourezk shows 8 out of 12 regions are operating without a permanent director, or with the permanent director serving elsewhere because the agency remains short-handed amid the Trump administration's attempts to reorganize the Department of the Interior, an initiative tribes have been told little about.

"I've heard from a few that feel that they are not part of the process," Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California), a key member of Congress who chairs the subcommittee that writes Interior's funding bill, told Secretary Zinke at a budget hearing last month.

Beyond management issues, the Trump team is facing fire for proposing changes to the land-into-trust process that tribes say will make it all but impossible for them to restore their homelands. Newly-disclosed figures -- courtesy of LaCounte, the replacement director -- show that Indian Country is indeed losing ground.

Since January 2017, when Trump was sworn into office, "just under" 16,000 acres has been placed in trust, LaCounte told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last week. That averages to about 1,066 acres per month, or about 12,800 acres a year.

The rate pales in comparison to the achievements of the Obama era. Between 2009 and 2016, the BIA placed an average of 58,860 acres in trust every year, or more than four times that seen so far under Trump.

LaCounte also confirmed that it takes tribes a "very long time" to navigate the fee-to-trust process, one fraught with political difficulties at the federal, state and local levels.

"Typically, we're talking years?" asked Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the committee.

"Correct," LaCounte responded.

"In some cases, quite a few years," Hoeven continued.

"Quite a few years, yes," added LaCounte, who said he has "studied" the issue at the BIA for quite some time.

Should Sweeney be confirmed, she will inherit a backlog of about 1,300 land-into-trust applications. The vast majority of those, according to LaCounte, are for acquisitions on reservation or contiguous to reservations.

Confirmation hearings for Assistant Secretary nominees are typically uneventful affairs even when difficult questions are posed and controversial issues are brought up. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs usually acts in a bipartisan fashion and has never rejected anyone for the post.

Besides being Alaska Native and a woman, Sweeney is one of the few Assistant Secretary nominees without a connection to a tribe based in Oklahoma. One of the only other ones was in fact the only woman -- Ada Deer, a Menominee Nation citizen who served between 1993 and 1997.

There have been 12 confirmed Assistant Secretaries since 1977, when the post was created. The nominees must go through the Senate confirmation process before taking office.

The Trump Indian Affairs Team

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs -- Tara Sweeney, Inupiat from Alaska. Nominated in October 2017 but not confirmed.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs -- John Tahsuda, Kiowa. Joined September 2017.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development -- Gavin Clarkson, Choctaw. Joined June 2017, departed under mysterious circumstances in December 2017.

Biographical information on Tara Sweeney was provided by the White House when her nomination was originally announced on October 16, 2017:
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.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Nomination of Tara Mac Lean Sweeney of Alaska to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior (May 9, 2018)

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