WASHINGTON – Larry Echo Hawk, the leading Native American voice in the Obama administration, is stepping down to fulfill a calling to join the leadership of the Church of Latter-day Saints.
Echo Hawk’s plans were announced by the church and confirmed by the Department of the Interior on March 31. He had served since 2009 early on in the Obama administration as Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, overseeing all Native-related issues at the agency.
Echo Hawk, 63, is being appointed to the Quorum of the Seventy, according to the church. That is the Mormon Church’s third-highest governing body.
Obama administration officials were quick to praise the Pawnee Nation citizen for his service to the country and to American Indians.
“Having known and worked with Larry for many years, I congratulate and support him as he embarks on this next leg of his journey within the Church of Latter-day Saints,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “I will work closely with Larry to ensure there is a smooth transition when he moves on to this new opportunity, so that we may carry forward the extraordinary progress we have made toward fulfilling President Obama’s vision for empowering Indian nations.”
Salazar added that Echo Hawk’s leadership has helped open “a new chapter in our nation-to-nation relationships with American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, accelerated the restoration of tribal homelands, improved safety in tribal communities, resolved century-old water disputes, invested in education, and reached many more milestones that are helping Indian nations pursue the future of their choosing.”
Echo Hawk has long served in U.S. politics, having been elected Idaho attorney general in 1990. He unsuccessfully ran in 1994 for Idaho governor as a Democrat. Later, he became a Brigham Young University law professor for 14 years before being asked by President Barack Obama to lead Indian affairs.
Echo Hawk previously said it was a difficult personal decision to join the federal government, given its negative treatment of American Indians throughout history, but he vowed to be an “agent for change.”
“How do you reverse 200 years of struggles?” Echo Hawk asked in a 2009 speech. “It’s not going to be easy.”
In recent times, Echo Hawk has been increasingly vocal about his Mormon religion from within the Obama administration, writing in a collective book published earlier this year that it had given him focus, and that he saw strong connections between his faith and Native identity.
“It seemed to me that the Book of Mormon was about my Pawnee Indian ancestors,” Echo Hawk wrote in the book Why I’m a Mormon, edited by Joseph A. Cannon, which includes the testimonies of 53 influential members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “The Book of Mormon talks about the Lamanites, a people who would be scattered, smitten and nearly destroyed. But in the end they would be blessed if they followed the Savior.
“That is exactly what I saw in my own family’s history,” Echo Hawk continued. “When I read the Book of Mormon, it gave me very positive feelings about who I am, knowledge that Heavenly Father had something for me to accomplish in life, and instruction in how I could be an instrument in His hands in serving the needs of other people.”
Echo Hawk will become the first American Indian General Authority in the Mormon Church since George P. Lee, a Navajo Nation citizen, who was called to the leadership by then-LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball. Lee was later excommunicated for “apostasy” and “conduct unbecoming a member of the church,” according to church history.
LDS leaders have praised Echo Hawk’s move, saying that said his new role shows that the religion is open to Democrats.
“[Echo Hawk’s appointment] helps to obliterate the old myth that you can’t be a good Democrat and a member of the LDS Church,” Jim Dabakis, Utah Democratic Party chairman, was quoted as saying in the Salt Lake Tribune. “It was never true.
“Only 9 percent of LDS people [in the state] self-identify as Democrats,” Dabakis added. “One of our objectives is to reach out to LDS people and say we are the party of values, and we want your values.”
In a presidential election year when Echo Hawk’s old boss, Obama, will likely square off against GOP frontrunner and popular Mormon Church member Mitt Romney, the politics of the situation will likely take on an added dimension.