As the new chair of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is eager to carry on the tradition of Republican support for Indian self-determination—and he hopes to teach his colleagues a thing or two about the issues facing American Indians. He’s also ready to do away with anything that gets in the way of his goals on that front—including the bureaucracy of the federal government. But his solution is not to get rid of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), as some of his Republican colleagues have proposed; rather, he wants to make that agency much stronger by elevating its current leader, Larry Echo Hawk, to a Cabinet-level position. Even if his Republican friends in the current Congress won’t support that move, he’ll push President Barack Obama to do it. “I have suggested to other presidents that there should be a Secretary of Indian Affairs sitting at the president’s table so that they can not only speak but make decisions, rather than having to go through the other agencies,” Young told Indian Country Today Media Network in a recent interview in which he shared his vision for tribes, his thoughts on tampering colleagues and his respect for Indians.
Indian Country Today Media Network: What excites you about your new role as leader of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs?
Don Young: I’m excited because we used to have an Indian subcommittee, and we did a lot of good work there. And then they disbanded it and put it under the full committee, and there wasn’t the same focus on some of the basic problems we have in the nation, and in Indian country. I think there could be better progress in the development of resources, in the ability to [carry out] trust responsibility. We have some great challenges in the Lower 48, on our reservations and in Alaska. And there are some big opportunities. I don’t appreciate the paternalism of the U.S. government over Indians. There’s such a great wealth of intelligence in the tribes.
Talk about developing resources. Any specifics?
Take the case of the recent plan for a coal-fired plant on the Navajo Nation. They made the investment, they had everything ready to go, but another agency [the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)] started dragging its feet, and the BIA didn’t speak out for them. They’re supposed to be the spokesmen, and they don’t do their job because they have outside interests. The right of the Navajos to be more efficient and economically well-off was taken away by the bureaucracy of the federal government. And I don’t think that’s the way it should be.
What do you do about that?
Review other agencies—like the EPA and the regulations they pass—and either put it into law, or cut their money, so they can’t do this to another tribe or another Indian country organization.
How do you get the BIA to be a true voice for tribes?
Echo Hawk has done a good job, but the problem is the way the Interior Department is set up, with so many agencies underneath it. At the very bottom of all those agencies, you have Echo Hawk. And he can’t do his job because the other agencies fight him all the way. With all due respect to BIA—forget who’s in charge of it—they’ve got a job, but they’re not producing anything. There’s no drive to become more helpful to tribes.
Is cutting BIA’s budget the answer?
I don’t think we need to cut any money. We have to redirect the dollars so it gets to the tribes so they can produce. It is the compact in the Self-Governance Act that we have not allowed to happen. We’ve had greater success in Alaska because we don’t have the reservation system.
A lot of people in Indian country might love the idea of elevating Indian affairs to the Cabinet, but how would some of your GOP colleagues feel about that?
They probably won’t like it. I’ve been here 40 years, though, and Indians are getting short shrift. It’s not about money. It’s about results. My goal has always been results—not just sitting in an office moving paper. I don’t think it creates more bureaucracy. I think it cuts back on bureaucracy. For one thing, you don’t have to fight all your so-called friends in the same department.
So you don’t favor doing away BIA?
No! I just want more efficiency. The president could even do it by executive order—bring Echo Hawk to the table so he can position himself without the threat of being replaced by the Secretary of the Interior. We need an advocate. I want the people in Indian country who want to determine their own destiny to have the ability to do it, and not be inhibited by other government agencies.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, has come down hard on the exemption on noncompetitive bids for Alaska Native corporations. Do you think the waves she has made in the Senate could move over to the House?
She doesn’t know bologna from sausage. She’s after it because it sounds good. Yes, in any group of people, there can be ones who want to take advantage of the situation. But overall the program has worked. Why the attack? Because it’s about American Indians. And they have to be united. I argue this in Alaska all the time. Don’t fight among yourselves. If you stay united, people start paying attention.
But that’s easier said than done with 565 federally recognized tribes.
My point is: If it helps a tribe, swallow your envy and your ego and say, ‘Good for them, let’s see if they can help us.’ We did it in Alaska. The Alaska Natives stayed united to re-elect Sen. Lisa Murkowsi.
There is the perception that Democrats are stronger on Indian issues, but you are a Republican who’s very strong on Indian issues. Why do you think that perception is out there?
There are two things to know. I think some Republicans are more willing to work in a bipartisan way on Indian affairs. I also think the Democrats have used the Native people, as they have sometimes used African Americans. They say, ‘We’ll take care of you’ without truly supporting tribal self-determination.
The previous Congress had some major success on Indian-focused legislation. But with this Congress, you’ve got a different makeup, and some of your colleagues are not as supportive of Indian bills. Do you think you can have as much success?
Watch what happens. I think we can be helpful in smaller pieces of legislation that will be beneficial for the tribes. When I eat an apple, I take little bites. When I get done, I’ve eaten the whole apple. A lot of people, they want to eat the whole apple at once. And then they choke to death.