An advocate for Indian Country in the Trump administration?

Tara Sweeney, an Inupiaq woman from Alaska, could become the second Native woman to head Indian Affairs.

 

Indian Country News is a weekly note from NewTowncarShare News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs unanimously approved the nomination of Tara Sweeney, an Inupiaq woman from Alaska, to be the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior. If confirmed by the Senate, as is widely expected, Sweeney would be the first Alaska Native to head Indian Affairs, and many in Indian Country have been watching her nomination with anticipation. Sweeney is well known in Alaska for her work on Indigenous issues, ranging from economic sustainability to tribal sovereignty. In an administration that has shown a lack of nuanced understanding of Indigenous issues, Sweeney could prove a vital advocate for Native Americans.

Sweeney, whose nomination has received , is also an executive and shareholder of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Senate Democrats are asking for a clearer promise from Sweeney that she will recuse herself from matters dealing with oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which her fellow Alaskan and member of the Committee on Indian Affairs, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, helped open up to mineral exploration. It is also where Sweeney’s employer owns subsurface rights.   

During , Sweeney made it clear that Native nations are not homogenous, and that dealing with sovereign nations as the unique and varied cultures and communities they are would be a cornerstone of her tenure. Past leaders of the Bureau of Indian Affairs have also held this view, but Sweeney’s perspective is significant, especially in light of the current administration. Native Americans as a whole are often seen as a monolith, rather than as the hundreds of tribes with their own histories and traditions that make up Indian Country.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye poses with Tara Sweeney following her May confirmation hearing to serve as the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

“Sweeney’s nomination comes at an important time, with an administration repeatedly calling into question the unique status of Indian tribes under federal law, either by design or mistake,” Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, vice chairman, on Wednesday. Udall said Sweeney could be not only an advocate for Indian Country within the administration, but also an educator.   

President Donald Trump’s relationship to, and understanding of, tribes is not strong. That’s clear in his administration’s claim that being Native American is merely a racial distinction and not a political one, as well as policy decisions like the large-scale reduction of Bears Ears National Monument. In addition to those issues, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is moving to , which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribal officials worry that merging the department's field offices would mean less resources for already underserved communities, and some tribal leaders have with the lack of consultation during the process. Whoever is confirmed to head Indian Affairs next will oversee policy changes that will affect countless lives in tribal communities across the country.      

Sweeney would not only become the first Alaska Native to head Indian Affairs, she would be only the second woman to do so. The first woman to hold that position, , was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Deer’s tribe, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, was stripped of its federally recognized status in 1961 as part of the , which sought to assimilate Native Americans by relocating them and removing federal support for education and health services. The county where the Menominee live quickly became among the poorest and most underserved in the state. Deer left law school in 1970 to return to the Menominee Indian Reservation and .  

“Today, I stand before you as a true survivor of Indigenous policy,” in 1993, shortly after starting as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. Deer was speaking about her work championing the Menominee Restoration Act, which reinstated her tribe’s federally recognized status. “We, the Menominees, invented a new policy: restoration. This is the possibility, this is the challenge that Indigenous peoples in the hemisphere and across the world can exert and accept. You don’t have to accept the policies, you can work to change them.”

That legislation showed how Native nations can hold other sovereigns, like the U.S., accountable. To tribal leaders at the U.N., Deer made that promise clear: “Be assured you have an Indigenous voice in this vast government.”

A large swath of Indian Country looks to Sweeney with that sentiment in mind, hoping that amid a chaotic administration often at odds with what is best for tribal communities, Sweeney will be their voice.     

Wado.    

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at NewTowncarShare News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) seeks a director to lead a nationwide program focused on the protection of U.S. national parks from energy development...
  • Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • 5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • 3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Customer Service Specialist I General Statement of Duties: Works closely with the customer service manager performing high-volume routine computer database work. Also...
  • The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • NewTowncarShare News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • 4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • 5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.