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A Call for Obama to Spend Political Capital on Important Native Issues

The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen, who has been increasingly vocal in his magazine on tribal legal issues, is calling on the Obama administration to take bolder steps on Native issues. Specifically, he wants the administration to make some noise on its nomination of a tribal citizen to become a federal trial judge in Oklahoma.

“In February, the president nominated Arvo Mikkanen, an Ivy-educated Native American, to a spot as a federal trial judge in Oklahoma,” writes Cohen. “He would be only the third documented Native American federal judge in U.S. history. But GOP Senator Tom Coburn immediately blocked the nomination and, nine months later, Mikkanen still hasn't received a hearing, much less a floor vote. Worse, no one in Washington seems to care.”

Cohen also notes that the United States Supreme Court in June ruled against American Indian interests in a case styled United States v. Jicarilla Apache Nation: “In a 7-1 decision, the Court ruled that the U.S. could withhold from lawyers for the Jicarilla Apache Nation hundreds of documents that may be relevant to the tribe's long-standing mismanagement claims against the feds. Justice Samuel Alito justified the decision by reminding his audience that the relationship between the feds and the tribe was less about trusteeship and more about power.”

“So what is the other branch of government, the executive branch, doing for Native Americans as 2011 comes to a close?” asks Cohen. “Is the White House pushing for Mikkanen to get a hearing? No. Is it pushing Congress to help change the procedural rules in Indian trust cases so that American Indian litigants can have more access to federal documents that pertain to their claims against federal officials? No. Those things would involve the expenditure of political capital – and the administration has shown repeatedly its unwillingness to spend in this area.”