Senators are speaking out after confirming Sally Jewell April 10 by a vote of 87 – 11 to become the next secretary of the United States Department of the Interior, saying she will be strong on American Indian issues as she encounters them in her new position—a position that includes oversight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Jewell, 57, was most recently the CEO of an outdoor gear and clothing company called Recreational Equipment Inc., and she is a former commercial banker and oil company engineer, as well as a longtime advocate for conservation and outdoor recreation.
In her previous positions, Jewell hasn’t done a lot of specific work on Indian-related issues, which she admitted during her confirmation hearing, yet some Indian leaders say she has done enough to know that she will be a positive advocate. For instance, she was part of the Board of Regents at the University of Washington, which approved the construction of the university’s new $5.8 million longhouse.
Billy Frank, a Native American environmental advocate, has issued his strong support, as have Fawn Sharp, Chris Stearns, and other Indian leaders.
Several senators also say they believe Jewell will be good for Indian country.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has met with Jewell multiple times and has discussed a number of issues important to Indian country, according to the senator’s staff. On March 7, at Jewell’s confirmation hearing, Cantwell asked Jewell for her “comments on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which will be part of your responsibilities. And whether you would commit to protecting treaty rights and incorporating tribal input into the Interior resource decisions?”
“I’m fully committed to upholding the sacred trust responsibilities that we have to Indian tribes and Indian nations,” Jewell replied. “And building and strengthening the nation-to-nation relationship that we have with tribes. I know this is a very important part of the Department of the Interior. … I’m certainly very interested in becoming more steeped in those issues and it has come up across the board in almost every one of my meetings with senators so far. So I very much look forward to taking this part of the role extremely serious.”
Cantwell further asked Jewell whether she supports energy development on Indian lands.
“Some tribes are blessed with natural resources and I think leaning into those resources to help the tribes economically as well as help the country by finding sources of energy development are really important,” Jewell said. “I know that businesses and tribes want certainty, in terms of the regulations. And I know that there have been issues with the Bureau of Land Management on how the leases occur. And I certainly will look into furthering that development.”
The comments from Jewell were not enough to convince Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the vice-chair of SCIA, to vote for her confirmation. He was tough on her ties to conservation groups during her confirmation hearing, and he ended up being one of the 11 Republicans to vote against her confirmation.
Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) office said he is interested in bringing Jewell to Montana to see firsthand the issues involving his state’s tribes. Based on conversations prior to her confirmation, Tester believes she will be a strong advocate for Indians, his spokeswoman said.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M), a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, predicted in a press release that Jewell will be an “outstanding” secretary.
“As fellow engineer, I am confident that Ms. Jewell will use science as her guide in addressing the challenges that lie ahead, including managing our nation's land and water, and expanding safe and responsible energy production,” Heinrich said. “Ms. Jewell shares my commitment to Indian country and to protecting our natural heritage for our children and for generations to come. And she knows firsthand that conservation and growing the Western economy are inextricably linked.”
On the House side, Don Young (R-Alaska), the leader of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, has not yet met with Jewell, but he has plenty of thoughts on how she can work to strengthen Indian country.
“One of the most important things she can do as Secretary is reorder the pecking order of the bureaus within the Department to give Indian Affairs equal standing with the others,” Michael Anderson, a spokesman for Young, said. “Additionally, one of the Department’s most solemn obligations is to ensure federal laws and policies dealing with tribes are beneficial to American Indians and Alaska Natives, and Congressman Young looks forward to promoting that message and building a strong relationship with Secretary Jewell in the days and months ahead."
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), the ranking member of the Indian-focused subcommittee is also interested in meeting with Jewell as soon as possible, according to the congresswoman’s staff.
President Barack Obama, upon receiving word that the Senate had confirmed Jewell, also mentioned her impending relationship with Indian country in a statement.
“Sally’s commitment to energy and climate issues, her belief in our strong government-to-government relationship with Indian country, and her understanding of the inherent link between conservation and good jobs ensure that she will be an exceptional Secretary of the Interior.”
Jewell was sworn in April 12 in a closed-door ceremony, immediately replacing outgoing Secretary Ken Salazar. She is the 51st Secretary of the Interior.