1.2 percent Indian representation on Obama’s transition team


WASHINGTON – Six Native Americans have been officially named to President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team.

The majority of the group is working on Interior Department-related matters, with three current and former lawyers with the Native American Rights Fund, including John Echohawk, Keith Harper and Robert Anderson, advising the former senator from Illinois on proposed changes within the department that encompasses the BIA.

Echohawk has served as NARF’s executive director for more than 30 years, and worked as a transition adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

Harper, who has been named as a “team lead” for the Interior Department transition, has long been the head NARF lawyer in the infamous Cobell v. Kempthorne case. Through his work on the lawsuit, he has helped represent a half-million Native landowners who claim the agency mismanaged billions of dollars of their income earned from sales of timber, oil and gas, and grazing leases.

Anderson, meanwhile, previously worked for a dozen years as a senior staff attorney for NARF, where he litigated tribal, state and federal cases, including water, hunting and fishing rights lawsuits.

In addition to the Interior transition developments, Mary Smith, Mary McNeil and Yvette Robideaux – all American Indians – have been assigned to work on justice, agriculture and health issues.

Members of Obama’s transition team have been instructed not to talk about their specific contributions, but Amy Brundage, a spokeswoman for the transition team said their appointments are consistent with Obama’s campaign pledges to Indian country.

“Just as he said during the campaign, President-elect Obama will listen to the specific needs of tribal communities and Native Americans will have a partner in the White House,” Brundage said.

“During this transition process it is important for us to bring together people of all backgrounds, as President-elect Obama has done throughout his career.”

Brundage also said that there are roughly 500 individuals serving on Obama’s transition team overall, which means that the six Native members equate to approximately 1.2 percent of its composition.

As the transition team has taken shape, Indian country observers have increasingly shared their thoughts on what they hope Native voices can bring to the table.

“Our goal is to have Indian country appointments made early,” said Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians in a conference call with several tribal leaders soon after Obama was elected.

“The immediate appointments needed are the Secretary of Interior, the White House advisor on Indian nations, and we’d like to have a Native American in the Office of Personnel.”

As of press time, none of these major Indian country appointments have been made, but tribal leaders continue to closely watch developments. With Obama’s economic and national security teams already nailed down, some political observers are expecting the appointments to be announced in short order.

For many tribal leaders, Obama’s choice for a Native White House advisor is one of the most anticipated moves that he has yet to make. He made the promise to create and fill this new position several times throughout the course of his campaign.

NCAI noted in a transition document dated Nov. 17 that the White House Senior Advisor to the President for American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes would answer directly to the president’s chief of staff and would be the principal advisor to the president on all matters related to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and Native individuals.

The person in this role would also be the primary contact for tribal governments and Native individuals and would coordinate policy across Congress and the federal departments and agencies.

More hopes from Indian country have been raised as a result of Obama’s choices of leadership within his transition team.

Johnson Pata noted in the conference call that John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, and Pete Rouse, former chief of staff to former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., are serving as co-chairs of the transition team. She said that NCAI has positive relationships with both gentlemen, as well as other top officials with the transitions team.

“We are hoping that our linkages to these folks will really help us. We’re looking for every way to link to them in multiple ways so we can hit on our recommendations.”

NCAI has made several policy suggestions to the new administration, including noting the importance of working quickly to address Indian country issues and appointments.

“[T]ribal government issues have suffered from inattention during the transition and early years of many prior Administrations,” according to the NCAI transition document.

“If appointments and major policy decisions are delayed for extended periods, the long term issues in Indian country are left unaddressed and handed on to the next administration. Any significant reform efforts must be planned during the transition and start at the beginning of an Administration if they are to succeed.”

Johnson Pata said that NCAI continues to collect resumes of Native folks looking to be part of the Obama transition team and/or administration.

Administration and transition team updates can be followed at www.change.gov.