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Echo Hawk Defends Obama’s Budget Cuts

The Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk finds himself in the awkward position of defending the Obama administration’s decision to dramatically cut funding for his agency.

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs March 15, Echo Hawk walked the tight rope, saying, “We are aware of the current fiscal challenges our nation faces. This administration understands the need to take fiscal responsibility, and also understands the need to strengthen tribal nations, foster responsible development of tribal energy resources, and improve the nation-to-nation relationship between tribal nations and the United States.

“It is our sincere belief that we have struck a balance in this FY 2012 budget request for Indian Affairs that achieves the president’s objectives of fiscal discipline while at the same time meeting our obligations to tribal nations with which our federal government has a Constitutionally-based government-to-government.”

President Barack Obama’s February 14 budget request for Echo Hawk’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and other Indian programs totals $2.5 billion, which reflects a $118.9 million loss, or 4.5 percent decrease, from the FY 2010 enacted level and FY 2011 continuing resolution. Echo Hawk noted that the budget includes a reduction of $50 million to eliminate the one-time forward funding provided in 2010 to tribal colleges and universities; a reduction of $41.5 million for detention center new facility construction; and a reduction of $22.1 million for administrative cost savings.

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The overall budget includes increased funding for other Indian-focused areas that Echo Hawk does not oversee, including $4.6 billion for the Indian Health Service, which is an increase of 14 percent over the 2010 enacted level. At the Department of Justice, the budget requests $424 million for criminal justice programs involving tribes—a 29 percent increase over the 2010 enacted level.

“Overall, the 2012 Indian Affairs budget reflects a fiscally responsible balance of the priorities expressed by the tribes during consultation and broader objectives of the administration, as well as demonstrated program performance, and realistic administrative limitations,” Echo Hawk said. “The 2012 budget focuses on core responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives through programs and services that are vital to Indian country and that benefit the greatest number of Indian people on a nationwide basis. The budget focuses on priority areas in Indian country and honors the federal government’s obligations to tribal nations in a focused and consulted manner.”

Kim Teehee, the White House’s senior policy advisor for Native American Affairs said recently that Indian programs overall “fared pretty well in light of all of the tough choices that had to be made.”