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Native Appointees Take High Profiles in D.C.

The Navajo Times, News Report , Chee Brossy Posted: May 28, 2009

The Obama administration has nominated a number of Native Americans to powerful positions within the executive branch.

Three have been nominated to positions within the Interior Department, with two already confirmed by the Senate.

Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, Rosebud Sioux, was confirmed May 6 as director of the Indian Health Service, and Larry Echohawk, Pawnee, was confirmed as assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian affairs on May 19.

After a hitch in the confirmation process, the third nominee, Hilary Tompkins, Navajo, looks to be nearing a vote on her confirmation as solicitor of the Interior Department.

Tompkins, who was raised in New Jersey, ran into trouble from a Utah senator who is upset with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for his embargo of oil and gas development near scenic lands in southern Utah.

The leases had been approved in the waning days of the Bush administration over howls of protest from environmental groups.

Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, also said he was unsatisfied with Tompkins' answer to a question about her stance on a 2003 agreement between Utah and the Interior Department that stopped further designation of Utah land as wilderness study areas - the first step towards federal protections that can sometimes put an area off limits to development.

Bennett was unsatisfied with Tompkins' response that she would investigate the issue.

But on May 21 Bennett lifted his hold on the Tompkins nomination after receiving an indication from Salazar that he won't seek to overturn the Utah Wilderness Settlement.

In a press release, Bennett said he had been concerned that "certain members of the environmental community continually...try to undermine (the agreement)."

Although Bennett's hold has been lifted, representatives of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said they are still working for unanimous consent on Tompkins before they bring her confirmation to a vote of the Senate. It is unclear whether there are any other senatorial holds on Tompkins, which can be public, like Bennett's, or private.

Tompkins has declined to comment.

Aside from Tompkins, Native Americans have two representatives in influential federal positions in Echohawk and Roubideaux.

Echohawk, who was raised in Farmington, now heads the BIA. The position had been vacant since the last assistant secretary, Carl Artman, resigned in May 2008.

Echohawk has served as attorney general of Idaho and also served two terms in the Idaho House of Representatives.

Most recently, Echohawk taught at Brigham Young University Law School and founded a private law practice based in Idaho.

Roubideaux was an assistant professor at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine before becoming director of IHS. She holds a medical degree as well as a master's of public health, both from Harvard.

Sharon Clahchischilliage, director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, has taken note of the Native Americans being nominated to high governmental positions, a change from the Bush administration.

"We've had Natives in different positions (in government) but it hasn't been as vocal as now," Clahchischilliage said. "The White House is doing a good job of advertising the picks for all the positions."

She added that the next step is for those confirmed to advocate on behalf of Native Americans.

"We're such a political entity, and some of the issues that affect tribes, such as dealing with natural resources, are very sensitive," Clahchischilliage said.

"There have been times when some of the Indian advocates placed in these positions have been told to cool it and back off," she said.

"If the administration uses its Native American resources well, it will be able to come up with good decisions to navigate through the politics of these issues," she added.

But despite these high-profile Native appointments, a key advisory position Obama promised during his campaign is still unfilled. Obama promised to appoint a Native American as a senior policy advisor, who would consult with him on Native issues. It was a key component of his Native American platform during his campaign.

"We were hoping that position would have been filled by now," Clahchischilliage said. "I'm sure there is a lot of politics to navigate through before they make a pick for that position."

Related Articles:

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