WASHINGTON – The full Senate voted May 19 to confirm Larry EchoHawk, 60, as assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior.
In the job he will lead an agency that serves approximately 1.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives and manages millions of acres in tribal trusts. It is viewed by many as a difficult position – one that has long been rife with challenges involving the balance of federal and tribal interests.
The post has been vacant for more than half of the last eight years.
The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs previously approved President Barack Obama’s nomination of EchoHawk by a substantial margin. Obama’s nod came in April.
Few senators took umbrage with EchoHawk’s abilities. In committee, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., voted against him for reasons he did not explain, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed concerns regarding his positions on Indian gaming. Still, McCain did not vote against the nominee.
EchoHawk’s previous Indian gaming stances had also raised alarm bells for some in Indian country.
Detractors noted that when EchoHawk served as Idaho’s attorney general from 1991 to 1995 – the first American Indian in U.S. history elected as a state attorney general – he called on the governor to change the language of state legislation so the state no longer would have a legal obligation under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to negotiate for Class III gaming with Idaho’s tribes.
The criticism did not gain steam in Congress.
Some tribal leaders have said they are confident that EchoHawk, a member of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, will be supportive of tribal interests.
Alonzo Coby, chairman of the Fort Hall Business Council for the Shoshone Bannock Tribes, has exemplified the hope that many tribal leaders have for EchoHawk.
Coby testified during the confirmation hearing that he believed EchoHawk would advance tribal sovereignty and economic self-sufficiency. EchoHawk previously worked in a legal capacity for the tribe.
EchoHawk’s boss at the Interior now becomes Secretary Ken Salazar. The two have long been friends.
Salazar was quick to offer praise for the Senate’s confirmation. “I want to thank the Senate for expeditiously approving Larry EchoHawk’s confirmation,” he said in a statement issued May 20.
“He is a seasoned executive with an extensive background in government, Indian law and public policy. As Interior’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs, he will help the department meet its goals of empowering American Indian and Alaska Native communities and supporting the nation’s economic recovery.”
Prior to his new role, EchoHawk had been a law professor at Brigham Young University where he completed his undergraduate studies in 1970.
He received a law degree in 1973 from the University of Utah law school, and he and members of his family have long been viewed as strong advocates for Indian country.
“The challenges facing American Indians and Alaska Natives are great,” EchoHawk testified during his confirmation hearing. “I remember the many times that I have been in Indian reservation communities. In my mind’s eye, I can see the faces of people; people that I love and care for that suffered the affects of poverty. I would see it as my responsibility to do everything I can to see that every American Indian and Alaska Native receive an opportunity for a quality education and a good job and economic prosperity.”
Interior officials said a swearing-in ceremony for EchoHawk is yet to be scheduled, but is expected in short order.