The Senate voted 52 – 42 on June 3 to confirm Cherokee Nation citizen Keith Harper as a human rights ambassador to the United Nations.
Harper is the first citizen of a federally-recognized tribe to become an U.S. ambassador following J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed in 2012. Stevens was a citizen of the non-federally-recognized Chinook Tribe.
Senators who supported Harper cited his Cherokee ancestry and the historic nature of his nomination as top reasons for championing him.
“Mr. Harper is a well-qualified and historic nominee [and] he enjoys strong support including from within Indian country,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in December.
A partner with Kilpatrick Stockton, Harper is widely known in Indian country for being a lawyer in the Cobell trust litigation and its $3.4 billion ongoing settlement with the Obama administration. His long-time work on the case has been lauded by many Indians, as has his representation of tribes on other matters.
Harper was twice nominated for the human rights ambassadorship by President Barack Obama, first in June 2013. Harper had previously been a top campaign finance bundler for the president, and he served on the president’s transition team and on a presidential committee.
His nomination was not without controversy. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) noted in a floor speech June 2 that the Cobell legal team sent and posted online a letter during the settlement phase of the trust case to members of the class that encouraged them to contact four Native Americans who appealed the settlement.
The letter listed the Native Americans’ addresses and phone numbers, and McCain viewed this as an invitation for harassment. McCain also said Harper’s communications with the Senate over his involvement with the letter was dubious.
“What concerns me is his character, particularly his conduct in connection with a matter that could rightly be described as one of the greatest mistreatments of Native Americans by the federal government in recent memory,” McCain said. “That matter is known as the Cobell case.”
Through the course of Harper’s year-long confirmation process, two Indian lawyers have also said he was aggressive during past confrontations related to the Cobell case, while some tribal citizens said Harper had ignored some important tribal and Indian human rights issues.
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) considered withdrawing support for Harper in early March, but ultimately reaffirmed its support after a vote by its board, and five NCAI presidents later wrote a joint open letter supporting him.
“Keith Harper has been a longtime advocate for the civil and human rights of Native Americans and Indigenous people here and around the world,” the NCAI leaders wrote. “He has represented the National Congress of American Indians at the United Nations and Organization of American States in negotiations on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As a skilled litigator, tribal court judge and experienced advocate for tribal governments Mr. Harper’s unique skills and experience make him the ideal nominee for this important position.”
Dozens of other tribal leaders and prominent Indian lobbyists, lawyers and associates of Harper also sent the Senate letters of support for the nomination.
Harper himself asked several tribal leaders and Indian organization leaders in March to sign on to a letter that he and his supporters planned to send to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“[W]e note that if confirmed Keith Harper would be the first Native American to serve as a United States Ambassador,” the letter Harper circulated stated. “This is not only important for America, but as this year the United Nations is holding its inaugural World Conference on Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations, we believe it is most appropriate for Keith Harper to be leading America’s effort and presence at the UN body charged with promoting and securing human rights around the world for all people.”
Harper is one of a handful of the president’s nominees to be approved as a result of the controversial so-called nuclear option established by Reid in November 2013 that allows a simple majority of the Senate to approve presidential nominees, as opposed to the previously necessary 60 votes.
Harper’s nomination achieved cloture on June 2 by a vote of 51 – 37, which allowed it to proceed to the full Senate floor for a vote.