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Change of the Guard: Natives Making Moves in 2015

The political landscape of Indian country saw plenty of movement in 2015. The following are 12 of the year’s biggest stories in politics.
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The political landscape of Indian country saw plenty of movement in 2015. Perhaps no news was bigger than the recent announcement of Kevin K. Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that he would resign in January. Washburn is the latest White House official to step down from a Native role this year, following Jodi Gillette and Dr. Yvette Roubideaux. But in their wake, three other Native gained notice in 2015. They are Karen Diver, heading to the White House; Debora Juarez, a member of the Seattle City Council; and Denise Juneau, who announced her plans to run for Congress. The following are 12 of the year’s biggest stories in Politics.

Kevin Washburn Leaving BIA in January

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced December 10 that Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn will step down in January. In an exclusive interview with ICTMN, Washburn said of his tenure, “The [federal] commitment to Indian country has never been higher in my lifetime. President Obama’s leadership has dramatically expanded tribal sovereignty and it’s been an honor to be here during that time.” An enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, Washburn has served as the Bureau of Indian Affairs head since September 2012. Of the changes made during his tenure that will have the longest-lasting impact in Indian country, Washburn highlighted a greater commitment on the part of the federal government to tribal self-governance, support for economic development on tribal lands and changes to the Indian Child Welfare Act. Washburn will be moving to join his family in Albuquerque where he plans to teach and write at the University of New Mexico School of Law.

RELATED: Kevin Washburn Leaving BIA in January

Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Dollar General Case

As hundreds protested on the front steps of the United States Supreme Court, oral arguments were heard in Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians on December 7, one of the most important Indian law cases to go before the high court in half a century. The company is asking the Court to annul all civil jurisdiction over non-Indians on Indian lands. That has drawn outrage from tribes across the nation who spent decades and billions building judicial systems and legal codes to address jurisdictional “black holes” on Indian lands. Native women’s groups have protested the case, saying that removing all jurisdiction over non-Indians will give perpetrators and corporate bad actors an exemption for crimes they commit on Indian lands.

Dollar General had previously signed a lease agreement with the tribe in which it had agreed to tribal jurisdiction from any claims arising from its lease. A decision in the case is expected early next year.

RELATED: First Impressions: Dollar General and Indian Country

Denise Juneau: First American Indian Congresswoman?

In 2008, when she was elected as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Democrat Denise Juneau became the first American Indian woman ever elected to a statewide office in Montana. She was a speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, and would like to add first “American Indian Congresswoman” to her resume. Juneau spoke with ICTMN about her announcement to run for a Congressional seat.I want to continue serving the people of Montana. We’ve had great outcomes in the public education system, and I’m proud Montanans elected me to be in charge of their public education system, also to be a part of the most precious resource we have: our children. I feel like I can take my record and list of accomplishments to a bigger stage and national level.”

RELATED: Denise Juneau: First American Indian Congresswoman?

Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, Is New Seattle City Council Member

The voting deadline was in an hour, and Debora Juarez was herding her family to head out to her election night event at the Seattle Drum School of Music, ready to accept whatever decision voters had made. She was proud of her campaign, confident she had done everything she could to engage with residents and talk about her plan for the future, but “I don’t take anything for granted,” she said. An hour later, she learned her hard work of the last eight months had paid off: Juarez, a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation who grew up on the Puyallup Reservation, is believed to be the first citizen of an indigenous nation elected to the council in the city’s 150-year history. She is a former King County Superior Court judge and former director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs.

RELATED: She Won! Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, Is New Seattle City Council Member

Anishinabe-Kwe in the House!

Karen Diver, Chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota, announced in November that she is stepping down from her long time position as tribal chairwoman and has accepted an appointment to serve at the White House as special assistant to President Barack Obama on Native American affairs. Not bad for a woman who started out as a 15 year-old single mom struggling to educate herself while supporting her daughter.

Diver, a big advocate for self- sufficiency and advocacy for others, began working for the tribe in 2003 and was elected in 2007 as the first female leader of the Fond du Lac Band. A graduate of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, she also holds a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

RELATED: Anishinabe-Kwe in the House!

Mashpee Chairman Cedric Cromwell: ‘We have Sovereign Land’

On September 18, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose ancestors met the first wave of invading English settler colonists to arrive on the shores of Cape Cod almost 400 years ago, received notice that the Interior Department will issue a reservation proclamation announcing that land has been taken into trust for the tribe to create its initial reservation. Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn announced that the Interior Department has taken into trust 170 acres of land in the town of Mashpee, Massachusetts, for tribal government, cultural and conservation purposes and 150 acres in trust in the City of Taunton, Massachusetts, for the purpose of constructing and operating a gaming facility and resort. The lands in both Mashpee and Taunton will become the tribe’s first lands held in trust.

“We have sovereign land! We have sovereign land! We did it! We have our own universe!” Mashpee Chairman Cedric Cromwell shouted exuberantly to an excited crowd of Mashpee citizens who had gathered in the government offices/community center building to hear the good news.

RELATED: Mashpee Chairman Cedric Cromwell: ‘We Have Sovereign Land’

Tribes Win $1 Billion From Feds in Contract Support Costs Case

The federal government on September 17 announced a historic agreement worth almost $1 billion that would end 25 years of litigation between the U.S. and tribes over the payment of contract support costs incurred by tribal entities under the terms of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. Benjamin C. Mizer, principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, said the settlement was a compromise reached after years of complex negotiations following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter. Mizer described it as a settlement both sides can be proud of. Kevin K. Washburn, assistant secretary – Indian Affairs, explained that under ISDEAA, the federal government signs intergovernmental contracts with the tribes that allow them to run Bureau of Indian Affairs programs for the benefit of tribal members, such as law enforcement, forest management, fire suppression, road maintenance, housing and federal education.

The federal government has been contracting with tribes for these services for four decades, but Congress has consistently failed to authorize enough money to cover the full costs of the contracts.

RELATED: Tribes Win $1 Billion From Feds

BIA Reforms Finally Announced: Anti-Indian Forces Show Their Knives

Over the summer the Bureau of Indian Affairs unwrapped its long-awaited package of reformed regulatory procedures and criteria for the federal acknowledgment of Indian tribes. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn released the new streamlined “final rule” June 29. It is the first major overhaul of the regulations for federal acknowledgment (or federal recognition) since they were established in 1978.

But the road ahead for the new rule is fraught with uncertainty. Some Indian law experts say a provision removed from the final rule that would have allowed previously denied tribes to re-petition under the new regulations will likely result in litigation. And the question of whether the new rule will even be implemented is up in the air. Washburn and his team worked for three years on the revision project. They held dozens of consultations and public meetings all over the country and teleconferences that lasted for hours. They read thousands of opinions submitted during extended public comment periods. The goal was to repair a federal recognition system that has been universally criticized as broken, long, expensive, burdensome, less than transparent, unpredictable, and subject to undue political influence and manipulation.

RELATED: BIA Reforms Finally Announced: Anti-Indian Forces Show Their Knives

Pamunkey becomes No. 567; First Federally Recognized Tribe in VA.

The Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn issued final determinations on July 2 to acknowledge the Pamunkey Indian Tribe as a federally recognized Indian tribe. Additionally the Duwamish Tribal Organization has been denied. This is the second federal acknowledgment during the Obama Administration. Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown he is elated and exhausted after a process that has taken decades.He says gaining federal recognition is like “winning the championship and stepping down at the height of my career.”

RELATED: DOI Issues Determination: Pamunkey Becomes No. 567; First Federally Recognized Tribe in Va.

Roubideaux to Leave HHS Months After Receiving Top-Tier Position

Less than four months after the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) created a special, top-tier position for Dr. Yvette Roubideaux to advise HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell on Indian health and other Native-focused matters, Roubideaux has announced that she is stepping down.Roubideaux wrote an e-mail June 1 to Indian Health Service staff where she announcing her decision while complimenting the IHS staff and the support from the Obama administration. Senators from across the aisle, especially Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Jon Tester (D-Montana), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and former Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) had made it quite clear to Roubideaux both privately and in some cases during public hearings that many tribal leaders were concerned about her ability to be a strong advocate on pressing tribal concerns.

RELATED: Roubideaux to Leave HHS Months After Receiving Top-Tier Indian Health Position

Stepping Down as White House Advisor, Jodi Gillette Accepts New Role

Jodi Archambault Gillette, President Barack Obama’s special assistant for Native American affairs, left the White House May 14 to be policy advisor at the law firm of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, LLP. Gillette served on the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, where she advised the president on issues impacting Indian country. A citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, she was first appointed by the Obama Administration in February of 2009.

Gillette’s time at the White House and in several federal agencies has been marked by key accomplishments that have helped Native Americans nationwide..

RELATED: Blazing a New Trail: Jodi Gillette Leaves White House to Join Sonosky Chambers

Jonodev Chaudhuri Confirmed As NIGC Chair

After a year-and-a-half as acting chairman and vice chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri was confirmed by the Senate as chairman of the gaming regulatory agency on April 16. Chaudhuri, an enrolled member of the Muskogee Nation, served as Senior Counselor to the Interior Department Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn, providing guidance and assistance on a wide range of national policy issues, including Indian gaming, economic development, energy, Alaska affairs, and tribal recognition. The NIGC is responsible for regulating the more than 450 Indian gaming facilities, associated with nearly 242 tribes, across 28 states.

RELATED: It’s Official: Jonodev Chaudhuri Confirmed As Chair of NIGC