The 2017 fourth quarter issue of Uqalugaaŋich, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation newsletter, features a photo of Tara Sweeney and other ASRC executives celebrating with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) at the White House following the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December 2017.

Jenni Monet: Indian Country's ANWR

How an Iñupiat Trump Official, Tara Sweeney, is challenging everything you know about Indigenous environmentalism

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It was late-February, 2001 when a doe-eyed Tara Sweeney, then 27-years-old, joined members of Congress and others to promote drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President George W. Bush had been in office barely a month. Expanding the reserve for oil exploration had been one of his top campaign issues. A year earlier as Governor of Texas, Bush rallied to reduce America’s dependency on foreign oil. Sweeney, a fresh face in politics, grew up in the area that proposed legislation had targeted — Alaska’s North Slope, home to Iñupiats, Gwichins, polar bears, and caribou but also to some of the world’s most pristine, oil-rich lands yet to be tapped.

“Our people are very much in support of development of the Coastal Plain of ANWR and we support and applaud the efforts of Senator Murkowski,” said the young Sweeney, a budding lobbyist for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), the economic engine for her Iñupiat community.

The Murkowski lawmaker Sweeney referenced back then isn’t the one we know to hold office, today — U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Rather, it was her father, Frank, who invited Sweeney along to introduce his signature bill, the National Energy Security Act. As chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski argued to open the ANWR to oil drilling with the same rhetoric that got Bush elected: fear of Middle East domination of the world’s oil supply.

“At what point does our national security interest of this country become compromised?,” Sen. Murkowski questioned in a press conference unveiling his proposed legislation.

Two decades later, after various bills like Murkowski’s have largely been defeated, the Trump Administration’s energy plans may be the closest yet to open the ANWR to drilling, a decision reversing six decades of protections for America’s last wildlands, but also setting the stage for fierce legal battles.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, at table, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development Mark Cruz are seen at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Last Monday, the Interior Department said it had completed its required reviews to begin the process of auctioning off drilling leases for oil and gas development. According to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the first of the lease sales could come as early as year’s end.

Sweeney, today’s Interior Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, could stand to benefit handsomely from the drilling. While no longer an ASRC lobbyist, a position she held for close to two decades, she remains an ASRC shareholder, a status akin to tribal citizenship for Natives in the so-called “lower 48.”

The ASRC, one of Alaska’s thirteen regional Alaska Native Corporations, and arguably the wealthiest, holds drilling rights to what is believed to be the most oil-rich deposits in the ANWR. Known as Section 1002, the property is believed to hold so much fortune that exact oil projections have long-been kept secret.

When Sweeney was handpicked for the Interior position by then-Secretary Ryan Zinke, a champion of energy dominance, the Iñupiat Native made Washington a promise. “My ethics pledge requires me to recuse myself from all matters pertaining to the ASRC and I will adhere to that, yes,” said Sweeney in her May 2018 confirmation hearing.

Lawmakers had expressed concern over her close ties to the Alaska Native corporation and her past ANWR ambitions. Sweeney’s pledge is now central to a federal ethics investigation looking into whether her trail of lobbying interests poses a conflict to govern.

As a high-schooler in Barrow, Alaska, Sweeney, now 47, grew inspired to work for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation when executives visited campus one day discussing the possibilities for her Iñupiat community. She is considered the second-generation of post-statehood Alaska — America’s last colonizing frontier of Indigenous territory. The North Slope and its oil reserves discovered in the 1960s is as politically relevant today as it was back then. At the time, Prudhoe Bay in the refuge’s coastal plain was known around the world as one of North America’s largest oil fields. The ASRC was invented to make it so.

Congress in 1972, established the Alaska Native Corporation structure in sync with the federal government’s centuries-old rules of extinguishing aboriginal title. In many ways, the ANC’s, as they’re called, were the result of modern-day treaty-making. These businesses, thirteen regional corporations, and hundreds more at the village level, were intended to foster economic development for Alaska Natives. The North Slope, Sweeney’s homeland, would be the state’s model community.

Today, the ASRC, worth billions, is not only Alaska’s proudest Indigenous success story, but also one of U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski’s key financial backers. When the Alaskan Republican lost her primary in 2010, the Native corporation was one of her largest supporters, contributing $200,000 to her successful re-election campaign.

Like her father, Sen. Murkowski has been the most loyal advocate in Congress for drilling the ANWR. Calling Monday’s decision a “milestone,” Murkowski, today the second most senior Republican woman in the Senate, adopted her father’s sales pitch from two decades ago — that drilling will not come at the expense of the environment.

Sweeney has in many ways been groomed by the Murkowski family. In 2003, Frank Murkowski, recently elected governor, appointed her to his cabinet as Special Assistant for Rural Affairs and Education in Alaska. Yet, Sweeney has spent most of her career working for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.

Arctic Slope Regional Corporation headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo: Diandra Totten

The ASRC is a private, for-profit company that is owned by and represents the business interests of 13,000 Iñupiat shareholders. The corporation owns nearly five-million acres of land on Alaska’s North Slope — 92-thousand of which lies in the ANWR’s precious Section 1002. With $3.4 billion in annual revenue, the ASRC ranks 139th on Forbes nationwide list of top-grossing companies, profits mostly reaped from oil and gas production. By the time Sweeney was confirmed in 2018, federal financial disclosure forms, filed a few months earlier, showed that she was paid more than $1 million over the prior 13 months while an oil-executive at ASRC, including incentives from previous years.

Last spring, when these details, along with the lobbying activities of her husband, surfaced in the midst of coronavirus relief aid delays imposed on tribal governments, an unprecedented coalition of Indigenous organizations called for her resignation. Tribal leaders accused their BIA leader of bilking tribes out of billions of dollars to benefit Native-owned corporations, including the ASRC. “We urge her swift removal, as well as an immediate investigation into whether ethical or legal violations were committed,” the leaders wrote.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski wasted little time defending Sweeney. “Trying to hold any person’s tribal affiliation or similar congressionally established status against them for political purposes is simply gross and a new low,” said Murkowski in a statement. “Assistant Secretary Sweeney’s [ASRC] affiliation is her birthright. It’s part of her identity as an Alaska Native, similar to tribal enrollment, and should not be used against her based on crass partisan motives.”

A year before her appointment as Assistant Interior Secretary in 2018, Sweeney stood with other ASRC shareholders in the Oval Office for a photo; Murkowski was also there. The image captured President Trump minutes after signing into law Murkowski’s late-hour tax measure to begin drilling the ANWR, a $1 billion promise of revenue-generating interests that would benefit the federal government — what her father had similarly pitched years ago. The photo made the cover of that fall’s ASRC newsletter.

Not a year after Alaska statehood in 1959, Congress set aside millions of acres in northeast Alaska to be left untouched. But that all changed when oil was discovered in the Prudhoe Bay in 1968. The protected plains safeguarded by Congress were now targeted for oil riches, too.

When Congress voted to preserve Alaska’s vast wilderness about a decade later, big oil advocates rallied to drill the North Arctic. Inupiat communities like Barrow, where Sweeney was raised, supported the drilling; they knew from oil profits pouring out of Prudhoe Bay and where the ASRC had been an energy service provider, that further development in their homelands could return revenue they had not yet realized.

In 1980, Congress authorized oil and gas exploration for a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 19 million acres — but ambiguously, such development was set for a later date. The 1.5 million acres of coastal plain set aside came to be known as Section 1002 or simply 1002 Area. Maps from the era depict a jagged boundary line and an arrow defining the ASRC’s stake — the 92,000 acres listed simply as “Native lands.”

Today, the 1002 Area, stretching between the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea, is no longer off-limits. The Bureau of Land Management is overseeing the lease sales decided on Monday and will look to oil companies to determine which tracts should be offered up for bidding.

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

While Sweeney and other Natives from the North Slope support oil development, another Indigenous group has long-opposed the plan. The Gwich’in situated south of the refuge, fear oil development would disrupt their subsistence economies dependent on the migration of the caribou.

“Our creation story tells us that we made a vow with the caribou that we would take care of each other. They have taken care of us, and now it is our turn to take care of them,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwichʼin steering committee, told The Guardian.

Environmental groups say they plan to file lawsuits to try to block the lease sales, arguing that the Interior Department failed to adequately consider the effects that drilling the ANWR may have on climate change and wildlife.

Two years after Sweeney journeyed to Washington D.C. with Sen. Frank Murkowski, she returned to testify, this time as his special assistant under Alaska’s Office of the Governor. The House Resources Committee was hosting a hearing focused on the costs and benefits of Arctic oil and gas drilling. Sweeney, after introducing herself in Iñupiaq, her Indigenous language, worked to convince lawmakers that energy development on her homelands was safe.

“My people are the North Slope’s stewards of the lands, waters, and wildlife. The area is our kitchen. Our villages depend on our wildlife for our subsistence diet.”

Sweeney painted a picture for lawmakers of some of the poorest Alaska Native villages known statewide — those without running water, flush toilets, sewage systems, or law enforcement. Oil, she said, had afforded communities like Barrow these “privileges” in the Arctic. More than anything, she said it allowed the Iñupiat an opportunity to determine their own destinies.

“We did not go into the prospect of oil development lightly,” she said. “It is with our involvement that development and wildlife can co-exist today.”

But the well-being of the land and its animals is the least of Sweeney’s challenges now, even with drilling the ANWR on a seemingly forward path. What she must contend with more than anything is mounting perceptions of acting unethically.

In September, several tribes, in a consolidated lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Treasury, will argue against Alaska Native Corporations, including the ASRC, from benefiting from Indian Country’s $8 billion CARES Act fund. The dispute has been brewing since mid-April when tribal leaders learned that ANCs were attempting to pass as tribal governments to benefit from the bailout. It’s a question now up to an appellate panel of judges to understand.

The case is complex for anyone less familiar with Indian Country, but really it boils down to the simple structure of sovereignty in America; that there are only three recognized forms of government: federal, state, and tribal. Should Alaska Native Corporations prevail, it would make, for the first time, for-profit companies on par with these governments — in this case, tribal governments.

“It would be as disastrous as someone saying that Google has the same power as Congress,” said Natalie Landreth, Senior Staff Attorney for the Native American Rights Fund’s Alaska Office.

Indian Country, while directing its lawsuit at the Treasury, the agency responsible for distributing the CARES Act package, blames Tara Sweeney for the discord. In her role as BIA Secretary, tribes argue that she has acted without their best interests in mind when guiding the Treasury on how to manage their coronavirus aid. More than anything, tribal leaders continue to question her loyalty to Alaska’s most profitable Native corporation, the ASRC.

“Her actions, her choices — she just doesn’t look good,” said Kevin Allis (Forest Pottawatomi), CEO of the National Congress of American Indians.

The criticism was a stinging indictment to Sweeney, one of NCAI’s past pageant princesses back in 1993 — a time when she merely aspired to be a policymaker.

Jenni Monet is a journalist and tribal citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna. She reports on Indigenous rights and injustice in the U.S. and the world. This article originally appeared independently at Indigenously.

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