President Barack Obama surprised many in Washington, D.C. on February 6 by announcing his nomination of a political unknown, Sally Jewell, to become his next Secretary of the Department of the Interior after the impending exit of Ken Salazar.
Jewell, CEO of an outdoor gear and clothing company called Recreational Equipment Inc., will be expected to oversee an agency that includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and many Indian-based areas, including trust programs, education, and economic development. She is also a former commercial banker and oil company engineer longtime advocate for conservation and outdoor recreation.
So what does Jewell, 56, know about Indian country?
Not much, according to her biography, and her office hasn’t responded to queries on whether she has personally taken an interest in Indian issues in her previous positions.
On that question, the White House has also been mum, saying that her office should be contacted, but adding that she is expected to be committed to Native Americans.
“The President has clearly demonstrated a strong commitment to Indian country over the past four years, and Mrs. Jewell is deeply committed to continuing to build on our nation-to-nation relationship with Indian country,” said spokesman Shin Inouye when asked about whether the White House has investigated her experiences involving Indian country-related issues.
“She is committed to building our nation-to-nation relationship with Indian country,” echoed Obama in his nomination speech of Jewell.
One small Indian-related fact has emerged to date about Jewell’s past: While she served on the Board of Regents of the University of Washington, the group approved the construction of the university’s new $5.8 million longhouse.
Despite the seemingly thin Indian-focused resume, Indian supporters of Jewell from Washington state said her career offers some insight into the type of leader she will be if confirmed by the Senate. “Sally’s strong roots in the Seattle Area, her leadership at REI, WaMu, and the University of Washington, have given her a clear perspective on the power and culture of the many Indian nations in the area,” said Chris Stearns, a Navajo attorney with the Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker law firm in Seattle, and a former Clinton Administration official. “She has been a hands-on leader of REI who built a culture of inclusivity and respect among its employees and shareholders. DOI is a much different beast than REI, no doubt, but her leadership style and history bode well for Indian country.”
“I receive the word of President Obama’s appointment of Ms. Jewell with confidence and great anticipation that she will do an exceptional job for not only tribal nations but all people and for the wondrous natural heritage of our great country,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, in a statement. Sharp said that she has “great faith and trust that [Jewell] will understand the incredible significance of her new position to the tribal nations, and that she will always work with us to help safeguard and restore the environment, and support the rights, the heritage and the way of life of Native people.”
Some Indian organizations, while not intimately familiar with Jewell, praised her selection.
“Sally Jewell’s diverse experience in energy, conservation, and stewardship efforts, presents an exciting opportunity for the country and tribal nations to make great strides and continue the transformation of the Department of the Interior under this President,” according to a statement from the National Congress of American Indians.
“Indian tribes have much to offer regarding the deeper mysteries and wonder of this continent,” said Brian Patterson, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes organization, in a statement. “Ms. Jewell’s experience and background indicate that in a variety of ways she has this sense of wonder and sincerely seeks to understand these mysteries.”
Indian country-focused Congress members are also paying attention to Jewell’s knowledge of Indian issues, and senators plan to ask her about it during the confirmation process.
“Senator Cantwell is confident that Sally Jewell would continue the Obama Administration’s progress in strengthening the government-to-government relationship with Indian country,” said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “Senator Cantwell looks forward to discussing issues important to tribes during Sally Jewell’s confirmation process.”
“Congressman Young hopes that if confirmed, Ms. Jewell shows a willingness to work with Congress on issues such as increased tribal self-governance and responsible resource development,” added Michael Anderson, a spokesman for Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and chair of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.
Born in Britain, Jewell has two grown children with her husband, Warren, and she is a graduate of the University of Washington.