Assistant Secretary for Indian Affair Tara Sweeney greets leaders of the United South and Eastern Tribes at the organization's meeting in Arlington, Virginia, on March 4, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Trump administration's face of Indian policy heads to Capitol Hill for first hearing

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Testifying before Congress is an essential part of the job for the leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs but somehow the Trump administration's pick has managed to escape accountability despite pledging to do so during her confirmation process.

That changes this week as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney finally makes her first appearance on Capitol Hill. Her testimony before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday comes nearly a year after her nomination hearing before the panel, almost 10 months after being confirmed to the post and nearly nine months after starting work in the nation's capital.

"Assistant Secretary Sweeney looks forward to the opportunity to testify before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on April 10, 2019 to discuss 'Building Out Indian Country: Tools for Community Development,'" a spokesperson for the BIA told Indianz.Com in advance of the hearing.

In another time, Sweeney's lack of visibility would have been seen as a snub to the legislative branch. When "Famous" entrepreneur Dave Anderson, who served in the role during the George W. Bush administration, failed to appear before the same committee only two months after being sworn in, he was roundly criticized by the legendary Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former U.S. Senator.

"He seems to have taken a hike on us," Campbell, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who was serving as the Republican chairman of the committee, said of Anderson. "He's just not around most of the time when he should be."

But it goes without saying that the Trump era is a different one. When Indianz.Com asked staff for Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the current chair, to comment on Sweeney's invisibility on Capitol Hill, they would only confirm that she has agreed to testify.

"Administration witnesses are determined by the Secretary of the Department," an aide for the Republican majority otherwise told Indianz.Com, referring to the head of the Department of the Interior.

Staff for Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the outgoing vice chair of the panel, also declined to offer specifics when asked about Sweeney, who had simply answered "Yes" when asked a simple question during her confirmation process: "Are you willing to appear and testify before any duly constituted committee upon request of the Congress on such occasions as reasonably required to do so?"

In responses to written questions from the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Tara Sweeney promised to be responsive to Congressional inquiries and to testify when asked.

Sweeney has in fact had plenty of opportunities to testify before Congress. Since she joined the Trump administration last July, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has held nearly a dozen hearings, including one in her home state of Alaska, others on programs under her preview at Interior and still even more regarding issues on which she said she has pledged to take action, such as the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women.

The House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees issues affecting indigenous peoples, has convened an equally large number of hearings in that time but Sweeney has never appeared before that panel either.

The spokesperson for the BIA acknowledged that Congressional committees have asked Sweeney to testify on more than one occasion. But the Trump administration -- or, more specifically, the Secretary of the Interior -- chose not to send her to Capitol Hill for those prior hearings.

"Assistant Secretary Sweeney has been invited to testify [in the past], and it was determined that it was more appropriate to have the bureau directors associated with those issues testify," the spokesperson told Indianz.Com when asked whether Sweeney has taken a "hike" on Congress.

Sending subordinates to testify is a common practice for any administration but it has made Sweeney look even more disconnected. When asked about a well-known and widely-supported bill to protect the homelands of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, she mistakenly told the National Congress of American Indians that the Trump administration didn't know anything about it.

"We have not been asked whether or not we would be supportive until now," Sweeney said last October in her first appearance before NCAI, the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the U.S.

In fact, the Secretary of the Interior had sent one of those bureau directors -- in this instance, the "acting" director of the BIA -- to a hearing on the bill last year, one in which the official said he was unable to relay the Trump administration's position on the matter.

Sweeney gave her answer even after conferring with her top aide -- Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary John Tahsuda, who has been on the job since June 2017 and has testified numerous times before Congress -- while both were standing on the stage at NCAI's milestone 75th annual convention last October.

She then offered what might have been seen as a hopeful comment, though one that ended up underscoring her apparent lack of pull within the Department of the Interior, the federal agency with the most responsibilities in Indian Country.

"Generally, we would be inclined to support it," she told tribal leaders of the effort to protect tribal homelands. But recent developments have shown that the needle hasn't moved with Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native woman to serve as Assistant Secretary, serving as the Trump administration's face of Indian policy.

A key example was a messy meeting that had been billed as a historic gathering with leaders of tribal nations, the first of its kind in the Trump era. Sweeney was the only Senate-confirmed official at the session in D.C. yet was forced to share the table at the front of the room with two lower-level aides from the White House, neither of whom have significant experience in Indian issues.

But barely 30 minutes into it, Sweeney and her counterparts lost control. The president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the rest of his delegation ended up walking out in protest and other leaders said the White House failed to bring purpose and direction to what could have been an important step in resetting the administration's troubled relationship with Indian Country.

One tribal leader put it bluntly: "It was a shitshow."

And just last week, the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States took testimony on a new version of the Mashpee Wampanoag bill, as well as another measure to fix the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, a long-standing priority of Indian Country. But the Trump administration was a no-show, with Interior not even bothering to send a bureau director to the testify at the hearing.

Sweeney's most immediate predecesor, though, was there, albeit in a new role. Kevin Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation who served as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs during the later years of the Obama administration, reminded everyone of how difficult it can be for someone in that position to appear before Congress.

"Former Chairman Young, I've missed you these past few years," Washburn said in reference to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who is known as the dean of the U.S. House of Representatives because he is the longest-serving member of the chamber.

The room erupted in laughter. As a forceful advocate for Indian County's issues, Washburn occasionally clashed with Young, a former chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and a former chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, which was the predecessor to the current Indigenous Peoples panel.

"I'm ruling that out of order," Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Arizona), the current chair, said in jest.

Young did not chime in with any comments and Washburn, who now serves as dean of the University of Iowa College of Law, went on to testify about the need for a Carcieri fix and for improved tribal consultation policies.

But to many in Indian Country, the current climate in which budgets for critical programs are slashed, key positions go unfilled for years and long-settled understandings of law and policy are undermined, is no joke. The Trump administration has repeatedly proven itself to be a disaster when it comes to their interests, tribal leaders and their advocates assert, with no one on the Trump team seemingly able to respond to and correct the attacks on the trust and treaty relationship coming out of Washington.

"You guys need to be there in their face, to speak to them, to bring them to the understanding" of the federal government's obligations, Kitcki Carroll, the executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes told Sweeney at the organization's meeting in Washington, D.C., last month.

And even though Sweeney hasn't appeared before Congress, she has taken the heat in appearances before organizations like NCAI and USET. She appears responsive to concerns that he isn't using her position as effectively as some might wish.

"You should be able to rely on us to be that advocate," Sweeney told leaders of USET. "We take the trust responsibility seriously."

The hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs takes place at 2:30pm Eastern on Wednesday in Room 628 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. The witness list follows:
Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs
U.S. Department of the Interior
Washington, DC

Director, Community Development Financial Institutions Fund
U.S. Department of the Treasury
Washington, DC

National Director, Minority Business Development Agency
U.S. Department of Commerce
Washington, DC

Chief Innovation Officer, Rural Development
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Washington, DC

Lieutenant Governor, Acoma Pueblo
Board Member, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center
Albuquerque, NM

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice
“Building out Indian Country: Tools for Community Development.” (April 10, 2018)

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