Eugene R. Peltola Jr. is the new director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs regional office in Alaska. Photo: Office of Public Affairs / Indian Affairs

'Shake it up': Bureau of Indian Affairs undergoes change in the Trump era

The Trump administration has named a new director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs regional office in Alaska, addressing a vacancy in an agency described by key lawmakers as lacking “leadership” and even being “in complete disarray.”

The selection of Eugene R. Peltola Jr. fulfills a long-standing request among Alaska Natives to have one of their own in the job. Peltola is of Yupik and Tlingit descent and is a citizen of the Orutsararmiut Native Council.

“Alaska Federation of Natives is pleased with the appointment of Gene Peltola Jr. as the new Alaska BIA Area Director,” said Julie Kitka, who serves as the president of the largest Native organization in the state.

The announcement on Monday resolves a leadership void that emerged toward the end of the Obama administration. Weldon "Bruce" Loudermilk, a citizen of the Fort Peck Tribes, had served as the top regional official in Alaska for three years until he was transferred to Washington, D.C., in late 2016 to serve as the director of the BIA.

Loudermilk's presence in the 49th state had been controversial but not because of his long career in federal government. Tribes and members of Congress complained that the BIA should have done more to find a Native person from Alaska for the position.

The BIA even reopened the recruitment process in response to the concerns. Loudermilk, who had surfaced as a finalist for the job in early 2013, still ended up being selected later that year.

Another finalist, incidentally, was Bryan Rice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who had spent most of his federal career at the Department of Agriculture. With much fanfare, the Trump administration announced him as Loudermilk's replacement last October -- Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke lauded Rice's "wealth of management expertise and experience" as a benefit for Indian Country.

Six months later, Rice was out of the BIA director's job. He mysteriously disappeared in early May after a subordinate accused him of harassing her in a hallway at the Department of the Interior headquarters in the nation's capital.

Despite pledges from Zinke to be more accountable and transparent about workplace harassment in the #MeToo and #TimesUp era, no one from the BIA, or DOI, has been willing to explain -- officially or unofficially -- what happened to Rice.

"It is really disconcerting to see the news reports that you just had this individual resign, step down, be fired," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said at a hearing on Capitol Hill in May, "but then further to learn that you had investigations going on that speak to a widespread -- allegedly widespread -- harassment problems with the Bureau of Indian Affairs."

Murkowski was one of the lawmakers who had called on the BIA to hire an Alaskan for the regional director's job after Rice emerged as a finalist. She has since helped secure an even bigger achievement -- the selection and confirmation of the first Alaska Native to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, the top political position at the BIA.

According to Murkowski, Tara Sweeney is facing a tough job as the new face of Indian policy for the Trump administration. Beyond the harassment issues, the BIA has lacked “leadership” and “discipline,” the lawmaker said at the hearing in May.

"You are walking into an agency that has lacked the leadership, that has lacked the discipline," Murkowski told Sweeney, the Inupiat woman who is due to arrive in D.C. any day now, following her approval in the Senate late last month.

“We really do need you to shake it up,” added Murkowski.

Tara Sweeney is the first Alaska Native to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, a political position at the Department of the Interior. Photo: Navajo Nation Washington Office

Another key member of Congress also expressed alarms during the hearing. Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, described the BIA as appearing to be “in complete disarray” due to the leadership vacancies seen throughout the agency.

“The BIA director just resigned under a cloud of suspicion,” Udall said in reference to Rice.

“Eight out of the 12 regional directors in the BIA are temporary,” he added, alluding to figures first reported on Indianz.Com by Kevin Abourezk.

The hiring of Eugene Peltola in Alaska addresses one of those vacancies. He comes to the BIA from a long career at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another agency at DOI.

“The Alaska regional director post is vital to our mission of carrying out our trust responsibilities to Alaska Native tribes,” said John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who serves as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, a political position that did not require Senate confirmation. “I am gratified that, after so many years, it is now held by someone from Alaska who knows the Alaska Native people, their history and cultures.”

“Being an Alaskan born Alaska Native, I feel very honored and privileged to be selected for the position of regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alaska,” Peltola said on Monday. “This will provide me the opportunity to contribute to the continued betterment of our people, and, have a voice in the manner which subsistence opportunities are presented for Alaska Natives and other rural residents of the state.”

The BIA's Alaska office is located in Anchorage, the state's most populous city. Though it's far from most tribal villages, some Native corporations and organizations -- including AFN -- maintain offices there.

Over in Washington, the BIA director is being held by someone in an “acting” capacity with Rice out of the picture. Darryl LaCounte moved to D.C. from the Rocky Mountain regional office, where he has been serving as director since 2015.

Loudermilk, meanwhile, was reassigned by the Trump administration to a position in New Mexico. He had protested the move, according to documents released by DOI, noting that he had "accepted the position as Director, Bureau of Indian Affairs less than eight months ago and thus began the process of relocating my family from Anchorage, Alaska to Washington, D.C."

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