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EchoHawk apologizes to Idaho tribes for past gaming positions

WASHINGTON – Larry EchoHawk gained notoriety in recent days as word traveled that President Barack Obama would likely nominate him to become assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the Department of Interior. But in a day and age when even the nominations of the president’s top supporters, including former Sen. Tom Daschle, can be stymied by controversy, EchoHawk seems not to be taking any chances.

Accounts from tribal officials indicate that EchoHawk has recently been burning up the wires trying to get tribes in his home state of Idaho and around the country to support his appointment. Indian Country Today first reported EchoHawk’s vying for the position on Jan. 22.

The Pawnee tribal member’s efforts have come after some have argued that tribes have big reasons for concern, despite his longtime advocacy and support of Indian issues.

The biggest strike against EchoHawk has been repeated time and again throughout Indian country: When he served as Idaho’s attorney general from 1991 to 1995, he called on the governor to change the language of state legislation so the state no longer would have a legal obligation under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to negotiate for Class III gaming with Idaho’s tribes.

It’s a true charge, and EchoHawk is now making a special effort to indicate that he isn’t in favor of taking away any tribal gaming rights if he gets the nod to head the BIA.

Proof comes in a Jan. 28 letter from James Allan, chief of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to President Barack Obama, in which the chairman indicates that he believes EchoHawk to be a “great choice for the position.”

Coeur d’Alene tribal leaders had previously expressed skepticism about EchoHawk’s stances on tribal gaming, especially given his opinions when he served as attorney general.

But in the letter, Allan said EchoHawk recently “personally called” the vice chairman of the tribe, Ernest Stensgar, to answer the tribe’s concerns – and to apologize.

“His answers were honest and from the heart,” Allan wrote. “We all make mistakes in life. When I heard that Mr. EchoHawk regretted the actions he took as Idaho’s attorney general against gaming during the 90s, it eased our fears and put an end to negative speculation that had clouded his nomination.

“Mr. EchoHawk’s continued support of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is very important to all tribes because it goes to the very core of being sovereign. Any diminishment of our ability to determine our own destiny would be a terrible step backward. Mr. EchoHawk’s heritage, experience and wisdom will serve Indian people well once his appointment is confirmed. We wish him well and pledge our support.”

ICT has learned from more tribal officials that EchoHawk has been reaching out, trying to get similar endorsements, while calming the waters surrounding his past.

After talking over their concerns with EchoHawk, leaders of the Nez Perce Tribe also decided to send a letter to Obama.

“We are aware of the concerns surrounding Mr. EchoHawk’s position on gaming, but we are confident that such concerns will be squarely addressed in the confirmation hearing,” Samuel Penney, chairman of the tribe, wrote.

Confidence that EchoHawk has changed his views came directly as a result of talks with him, tribal officials said.

Whatever EchoHawk said during the conversations, he seems to have done a convincing job.

Penney wrote in his letter that he is “very up-to-date and familiar with tribal issues, including sovereignty, treaty rights and the federal trust responsibility.”

“Although we had our differences when Mr. Echohawk was representing state interests, he was always willing to discuss issues of concern,” the chairman added.

Other tribes, including the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho, have released statements of support for EchoHawk. It isn’t known how many tribes he has reached out to.

EchoHawk told ICT Feb. 4 he would publicly comment on his past positions – and the controversies they have spawned – if appointed.

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