Tara Sweeney testifies before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 9, 2018. Sweeney, an Inupiat from Alaska, has been nominated to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs within the Trump administration. Photo: SCIA

Bureau of Indian Affairs nominee takes big step toward long-awaited confirmation

Tribes might finally see a new advocate in their corner as they seek to hold the Trump administration accountable for the treaty and the trust relationship.

Tara Sweeney, President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is eager to serve as that fighter. During her long-awaited confirmation hearing last month, she said she would do whatever it takes to advance tribal interests at the federal level.

"I am not afraid to kick down doors if I have to," Sweeney told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 9. "I am persistent.”

Persistence could be paying off soon for Sweeney, who is Inupiat from Alaska. The committee is meeting on Wednesday to advance her nomination, a major step toward her confirmation as the next Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

And if she is eventually confirmed, Sweeney will be making history. She would be the first Alaska Native to serve in the position and the first woman in more than 20 years.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Tara Sweeney Confirmation Hearing - Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs

"I believe after this nomination hearing, committee members and their staff have a better understanding of Tara’s desire and ability to work with the current administration as well as Congress to strengthen consultation practices and further the self determination of Alaska Natives and lower 48 tribes," said Rex A. Rock Sr., the president and chief executive officer of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, where Sweeney has worked for 20 years, rising to the level of vice president.

Sweeney's corporate background makes her a standout choice. Almost every Assistant Secretary has been an attorney who has worked in Indian law and policy, with one notable exception being Dave Anderson, a successful entrepreneur who served in the post for only a year during the George W. Bush era.

"I’m encouraged the president chose you, Ms. Sweeney -- a Native American nominee with business experience and with a deep connection to your tribal community," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, noted last month.

At the same time, that resume has posed challenges. According to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), another member of the committee, it took federal ethics officials months to review Sweeney's nomination because of her Alaska Native corporate ties.

But with Sweeney pledging to recuse herself from matters affecting Arctic Slope, which is the largest Alaska Native regional corporation in terms of revenue, Murkowski is ready for a new chapter at the BIA, calling the the nominee a "strong, strong female Native leader, ready to take charge."

"And believe me, we need someone to take charge within the BIA, you know that," added Murkowski, who is one of Sweeney's biggest champions. The Assistant Secretary position has been vacant since January 2016.

A map of Alaska North's Slope shows the "1002 Area" of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where oil development could occur. Native owned lands are shaded orange. Image: U.S. Geological Survey

Sweeney also has promised not to seek a "waiver" from her recusal in the future, though the gesture appears to be largely symbolic, as the BIA does not typically make decisions affecting Alaska Native corporations. The Bureau of Land Management, a different agency at Interior, is responsible for approving land selections to Alaska Native corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

But Arctic Slope, and Sweeney in particular, have been major players on a politically-sensitive issue: energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. The corporation owns subsurface rights within a region of the federally-protected area where oil and gas drilling could occur through leases approved at Interior.

"Native Americans are the aboriginal environmentalists of this country," Sweeney said last month. "I understand the importance of that connection to the land and the environment because that also defines why I am who I am, as an Inupiat from Alaska."

Though the Trump administration supports drilling in ANWR and Congress has approved development in the so-called 1002 area there, decisions at Interior aren't expected for a couple more years. Again, the BIA not likely to be involved directly in any leasing activities, which are typically handled by the BLM for on-shore development.

The business meeting before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs takes place at 2:30pm Eastern on Wednesday. Sweeney's nomination is the only item on the agenda at this time.

Approval at the committee level clears Sweeney for action on the Senate floor. Barring any significant holdups, which are always possible in the deeply deliberative (and politically divided) chamber, she could be confirmed before the end of the summer, just as tribes are seeking a stronger voice on a controversial matter -- a reorganization at the Department of the Interior.

After months of speculation, the Trump administration finally presented the reorganization to tribes a couple of weeks ago. The first "listening session" took place on Sunday, with John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, facing a crowded room of tribal leaders at the mid-year conference of the National Congress of American Indians in Kansas City, Missouri.

There was "no consultation done with tribes," Aaron Payment, NCAI's vice president, said during the afternoon session. Payment also serves as chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, whose services could be dramatically affected by the reorganization of the 12 BIA regions into a new "unified" system based primarily on natural features.

Dozens of other Indian leaders have expressed similar sentiments. Though Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has said the national model might not be imposed on the BIA, many are extremely wary of the administration's record on consultation.

"Pueblos, tribes and nations in this country are not natural resources," Governor Kurt Riley of the Pueblo of Acoma told key members of Congress last month. "To reorganize based on drainage systems and watersheds is not appropriate and is not acceptable."

With the first listening session out of the way, the BIA is now holding tribal consultations from June 19 through August 9. The current schedule follows, with additional meetings possible:

Tuesday, June 19, 2018
9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
New Buffalo, Michigan
Four Winds-New Buffalo Casino
11111 Wilson Road
New Buffalo, MI 49117

Thursday, June 21, 2018
9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Billings, Montana
BIA Rocky Mountain Regional Office
2021 4th Avenue
North Billings, MT 59101

Monday, June 25, 2018
9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
National Indian Programs Training Center
1011 Indian School Road, NW
Albuquerque, NM 87104

Thursday, June 28, 2018
9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort
12222 New York Ranch Road
Jackson, CA 95642

Tuesday, July 24, 2018
9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Morongo Band of Mission Indians Tribal Chambers
11581 Potrero Road
Banning, CA 92220

Thursday, August 2, 2018
9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. Juneau, Alaska
Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall
320 W. Willoughby Avenue
Juneau, AK 99801

Tuesday, August 7, 2018
9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Embassy Suites Oklahoma City
1815 South Meridian
Oklahoma City, OK 73108

Thursday, August 9, 2018
1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Philadelphia, Mississippi
Pearl River Resort, Golden Moon Hotel & Casino
Hwy 16 W
Philadelphia, MS 39350

Written comments can be submitted through August 15.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Business Meeting to consider the nomination of Tara Mac Lean Sweeney of Alaska to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior (June 6, 2018)

Office of the Inspector General Reports:
BIA Manager Allegedly Sexually Harassed Three Subordinate Employees (February 20, 2018)
Insufficient Actions by BIA Management and Human Resource Officials in Response to Sexual Harassment Reports (October 18, 2017)
BIA Employee Visited Pornographic Websites on His Government Computer (September 20, 2017)
BIA Employee Sent Unwanted, Sexually Explicit Messages (June 5, 2017)

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