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Potential Bureau of Indian Affairs Nominee Draws Fire Over Gaming

Indianz.com, News Report , Indianz.com Posted: Jan 28, 2009

President Barack Obama has yet to announce his nominee for the Bureau of Indian Affairs but a potential pick is already generating some fire.

Larry EchoHawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, is a familiar name in Indian Country. After two terms in the Idaho Legislature, where he worked on tribal issues, he became the first Native American elected to a statewide office when he was attorney general of Idaho from 1991 to 1995.

The EchoHawk family is known for their Indian advocacy too. Larry's brother, John, serves as executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, where a cousin, Walter, also works. Along with his two of sons, Larry EchoHawk runs a law firm in Idaho that specializes in tribal representation.

But that record isn't enough to convince Scott Cromwell, another attorney, that EchoHawk is the right man to serve as assistant secretary of Indian affairs. After word of the potential nomination spread among tribal leaders who were in Washington, D.C. last week for Obama's inauguration, Cromwell accused EchoHawk of not being committed to Indian Country.

"I urge you to look behind the euphoria of the new administration, and the great respect that rightfully belongs to the EchoHawk name, and look at the specific facts regarding this specific man, and call upon the Obama administration and [Interior] Secretary [Ken] Salazar to choose someone other than Larry EchoHawk for this important position," Cromwell, whose law firm exclusively deals with tribes, said in an open letter.

The missive drew a quick response from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho. A letter from Chairman Alonzo Coby on behalf of the tribal council cited EchoHawk's long history in Indian issues, including his work for the tribes as their general counsel and his tenure as Idaho's top law enforcer.

"As Attorney General, he supported legislation and efforts to protect native religious freedoms, salmon treaty fishing rights, and other legal matters impacting tribal sovereignty," Coby stated. "While Attorney General, Larry also lead efforts to improve state-tribal relations through the Conference of Western Attorneys General."

The debate centers on EchoHawk's stance on Indian gaming, an issue that falls under the BIA. According to Cromwell, EchoHawk pushed Idaho lawmakers to change a state law in order to avoid negotiating a Class III gaming compact with tribes.

"Imagine that, while at the table with a federal obligation to negotiate in good faith, Larry EchoHawk instead headed up the extraordinary effort to change Idaho law to deprive tribes of their federal and inherent rights to operate Class III games on their lands," Cromwell wrote in a second letter.

In EchoHawk's defense, Coby said the attorney general has a "legal and ethical duty" to provide his legal advice on state issues. "He did this according to his oath of office, and he did not advocate against Indian gaming specifically at any time," the Shoshone-Bannock leader said in response to Cromwell's initial criticism.

With Indian gaming a $27 billion business, it's a big issue at the Interior Department. In addition to approving land-into-trust applications for casinos, the BIA must review all gaming compacts and, in some cases, can step in and help a tribe when a state fails to come to the table.

In Idaho, Republican lawmakers have never embraced gaming despite court rulings in favor of tribes and strong backing from state voters on ballot initiatives. Former Interior secretary Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, finally negotiated and signed four Class III gaming compacts after he became governor in 1999.

It's not known when Obama will announce his pick to lead the BIA. Although Ken Salazar, a former senator from Colorado, was quickly confirmed as Interior Secretary, the new president still has to fill other top posts at Interior.

Salazar spoke to over 400 tribal leaders last week before the inauguration and said they would be "very proud" of the BIA nominee. He indicated that Obama already made a decision about the post.

John Echohawk, of NARF, served on Obama's transition team, helping the new administration with Indian issues at Interior.

Indians Got Game: How a Casino Gives My Tribe Power

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