Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar and newly-appointed Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn sat down with Indian Country Today Media Network and Indianz for a “meet and greet” just before each of them gave speeches to the general assembly of the National Congress of American Indians’ 69th Annual Convention in Sacramento on October 22. The Secretary made it clear that a political discussion was off the table, but he was eager to report on the considerable achievements in Indian country during the last four years of President Obama’s administration and Washburn gave a preview of some work that lies ahead of him.
Kenneth Salazar: I think one of the most important things we’ve done in the last four years is to have a whole team to lead the Indian affairs issues. The [previous] lack of action, I think was brought about for two reasons: one, because there wasn’t leadership at the top… so it was hard to get anything done and, second, there was very little attention to the importance of Indian country. Under President Obama it’s been a huge priority … [and] we have pushed our agenda to start a new chapter between the United States and Indian country and we’ve been successful because we’ve been able to bring in the very best and very brightest people with the right passion for doing right by Indian country.
When I recruited Larry Echo Hawk to be assistant secretary, I did it because I’d known him for a long time and I knew the history of the Echo Hawk family fighting for rights for Indian country. And now with Kevin Washburn taking the baton… I am absolutely excited about what this means for Indian country and the U.S.A.
When you look at someone like Kevin, a Native American, and the contributions he’s already made at a very young age—the places he’s been, from Yale to Harvard to University of New Mexico—he knows Indian country both in terms of law and in terms of policy issues. I cannot think of anybody in the U.S.A. who’d be better to lead Indian affairs for the president and the Department of Interior.
We’ve made a lot of progress in the last four years. Over the last four years, we’ve worked hard on the restoration of homelands, to create economic opportunities for Indian country, on the government-to-government relationship and tribal consultations, and we’ve spearheaded a new effort on public safety in Indian country, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
For me it’s a longer challenge because you can’t turn 400 years of bad actions and right the wrongs of that history in a short four years. We have a great beginning and a great framework and I think with Kevin’s leadership we’ll be able to build on that framework and bring a lot more across the finish line.
Kevin Washburn: Well, I have to tell you I was somewhat skeptical about taking this job—it’s one of the hardest jobs in government… and I went out almost reluctantly to interview with the White House and the Secretary, but after about 15 minutes with the Secretary I decided this is a job I would like to do. The esprit de corps in the Interior Department right now is extremely high and I think that’s because of the Secretary’s leadership and why they’ve been able to accomplish so much in Indian country in the past nearly four years. There’s a lot more to accomplish but I think that this administration can get it done.
That’s kind of what drew me to this position. I was enjoying living in New Mexico, I had a wonderful job and I have a young family, so it’s not a great time in my personal life to be traveling all over the country, but I think its worth the sacrifice, especially if we have more time.
That’s the question, isn’t it? – whether you’re going to have more time.
Salazar: The president’s agenda has been clear on the importance of Indian country from Day One. Kevin took this position because there’s still a lot of work to be done, even in this term. We have to complete the program on Cobell and we’re waiting for the Supreme Court’s denial of cert, which we expect, to be able to deploy that program by the end of the year. We’re working on implementing another whole host of reforms including in education. So there’s still a lot of work to be done even if you assume we only get one term.
Well, let’s assume your work is going to continue and one of the reforms that has been talked about a lot is the federal recognition process. Is the federal recognition process something that you’ll be addressing?
Washburn: This is one [item on the agenda] I heard about unanimously–from on The Hill, from tribal leaders, from people within the department. There’s great dissatisfaction with the way things have been going with regard to acknowledgment/recognition and, honestly, that dissatisfaction has been [building] on the order of 20 years or more. A lot of former assistant secretaries say, ‘The one thing I wish I’d done that I didn’t get done was reform the acknowledgment /recognition process.’ …My deputy assistant secretary Larry Roberts and I have talked about it extensively already. It’s something we really do hope to accomplish and we will accomplish it only with extensive tribal consultation, because there are a lot of people who have a voice in that process and how it should work.
You said there was a moratorium on activity under the previous administration. Was it official or tacit?
Salazar: It was tacit. It was an attitude that Indian country was not important and it manifested itself in a whole host of things—thousands of applications pending for taking land into trust that simply were not acted on. It was a bad time. Larry Echo Hawk and [Donald] Del Laverdure and I met with regional directors and … said we have a responsibility under the law. Sitting on thousands of applications and doing nothing is not an option. … Since then, and with the leadership of Mike Black as [Bureau of Indian Affairs] director, we’ve processed almost 1,000 applications. And that covers about 180,000 acres of land [placed in trust], including an oil refinery at Berthold reservation, economic development, health, hospitals and schools and a whole host of things.
What about land into trust reform? What’s happening in your department about that?
Salazar: We’re processing applications, and both the regional directors and BIA director are shepherding that to see if there are ways of improving the process. That will be one of Kevin’s assignments. I see this issue falling under the world of the restoration of tribal homelands. One of the challenges we’ve had is the fractionalization issue, which we hope to address with proceeds under the Cobell settlement. We will have close to $2 billion that will be ready to address that issue and that may happen as soon …as the Supreme Court denies cert. [That] will trigger this program that will allow us to deal with the fractionalization issue. We have a Trust Reform Commission and Fawn Sharp is chair of that, along with Tex Hall and several other Indian country leaders.
Is that a new process, since you’ve never had a chunk of money like that before?
Salazar: It’s a new process and we’ve been getting ready. The Cobell settlement was approved by Congress a year or so ago. The Trust Reform Commission has been up and running for the past year and they’re ready with recommendations and will be able to hit the ground running as soon as the Supreme Court makes its decision.
What’s going to happen to the Office of the Special Trustee?
Salazar: [That] was supposed to be temporary, not forever and as we move forward with trust reform and the Cobell settlement we’ll look to Kevin to give us some recommendations on what we ought to be doing with that office. But all this kind of ties together. We work on all these policy issues—economic development, public safety, health care, the restoration of tribal homelands, water rights issues—all important things that take a lot of our energy to deliver because we want to make sure we’re delivering big-time on the promises to Indian country.
But at the same time there are process issues that, frankly, are broken, and programs that aren’t doing the greatest jobs. So one of the things Kevin and his team will help us do is try to figure out how to move forward. One example is the Bureau of Education. We’re proud that through the Recovery Act the president has put in money that has benefited some 18,000 children in over 100 school projects, but we need to make sure we’re doing much better job in educating the nation’s first Americans and Alaska Natives.
Salazar: Our policy is to do everything we can to protect sacred sites and I came to Salt Lake City with Larry Echo Hawk two-and-a-half years or so ago to announce the prosecution of people who had been destroying and exploiting sacred burial sites in the southwestern part of the U.S. So we have a program [to make] sure we are doing what we can to protect sacred sites. Secondly, our consultation policy requires our agencies to engage in tribal consultation. We’ve done it. I’m not saying we’ve done it perfectly… but in the case of Cape Wind, we took a project that had already been in place for… I think the application was filed in 2001 and so many of the issues had already been focused on. I had my consultations with the tribes on the issues firsthand. And, you know, it’s a tough job—I have to make some tough decisions at the end of the day in terms of some of our national priorities. In the case of Ocotillo, our view is that we had engaged in the right tribal consultation and the greatest care is being taken to make sure that sacred sites are being protected. Maybe there’s more work that we need to do there.
Washburn: We’re certainly looking into how we can do this [process] better. Sacred sites are fraught issues, they’re very difficult issues but we are looking at them in general as a policy matter and [exploring] how can we proceed more cautiously and with better consultation, and do everything we can to take care of tribal interests on sacred sites.
People are also talking about the UN Declaration and the right of “free prior and informed consent” – meaning you need tribal consent and when they say no, it should mean something.
Salazar: I think this is an area where we need to do more work. But I also will say it’s also an area where we need a lot more information. We haven’t mapped out where the archeological sacred sites are in the U.S. … I think the recognition of Indian heritage is very much something I’m trying to [get done] in another agency—National Park Service. The NPS [is now] focused on telling the story of all Americans and that includes the story of Native Americans, whether it’s Navajo Code Talkers or the bison issues—everything related to Native American history. My hope is we’ll see a lot more of that… We’re looking at the possibility of creating a bison tribal-managed national park which will benefit the tribe, so there’s a lot more we have to do on cultural recognition and the recognition of sacred sites.
What is your favorite thing about dealing with Indian country?
Salazar: There are so many things, but I’ll tell you about two. In North Dakota, at the Three Affiliated Tribes, where I visited two weeks ago, in the tribal council chambers there’s a photograph of the Secretary of the Interior in 1949 surrounded by the tribal elders and the tribal chairman, who is wiping his tears with a handkerchief, and under the picture are words about how the chairman was signing documents with a very heavy heart. The tribe was giving up 155,000 acres for the construction of the Garrison Dam, and the history preceding that was a litany of broken promises on the part of the United States toward Indian country. I was there that day to announce we were taking land into trust [to build a tribal-owned and -operated clean fuels refinery] and Tex Hall [the current chairman] said, ‘From the signing of that document in 1949 to today in 2012, we’ve come full circle and the world has changed. Today I stand here with the Secretary of the Interior and I’m very proud of what we are doing together.’ For me it’s very emotional, but it’s very much an achievement of a moral imperative that I think should be ours as a nation.
Another [personal favorite] was being there for the groundbreaking at Gallup, New Mexico, for the water supply [for the Navajo Nation]. So many people came up to me and said, ‘We’ve been hauling our water forever’—and recognizing the huge economic and humanitarian consequences of not having water supply in your home… For the first time we’re actually going to be able to bring fresh water to 250,000 people of the Navajo Nation.
Those are the things that have moved me the most and if I ever write a [book] there will be many stories like that.