WASHINGTON – Larry EchoHawk received a shower of praise that was almost universal during a May 7 hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on his nomination to head the BIA.
EchoHawk’s nomination as assistant secretary of Indian affairs is moving quickly through the process. His appearance before the SCIA came less than three weeks after President Barack Obama submitted his nomination to the Senate for confirmation.
Committee Chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., led the litany of praise for EchoHawk at the opening of the hearing.
“I want to state at the start my strong support for Mr. EchoHawk’s nomination,” Dorgan said, citing EchoHawk’s background in public service, law and education.
EchoHawk, 60, is a member of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and a law professor at Brigham Young University where he completed his undergraduate studies in 1970. He obtained his JD in 1973 from the University of Utah law school.
EchoHawk was elected Idaho attorney general in 1990, becoming the first American Indian in any state to be elected to a state constitutional elective office. He served in that capacity until 1995.
He lost his bid for governor of Idaho in 1994 and soon after accepted a faculty position at BYU where he has taught courses on criminal law, criminal procedure and federal Indian law, and published numerous academic papers on Indian land issues, treaty rights, jurisdiction and justice.
Dorgan had harsh criticism for what he called the “unbelievable bureaucracy” of the BIA, which he compared to “walking through wet cement. I want the BIA to work. I want it to work well for the benefit of the First American, American Indians.”
He said the agency’s lack of a leader during four of the last eight years “is just a tragic failure. I am confident that Larry EchoHawk will provide the leadership the BIA has needed for far too long.”
In his testimony to the committee, EchoHawk noted that he faces “a daunting task,” if nominated.
“The challenges facing American Indians and Alaska Natives are great,” EchoHawk said, highlighting the issues that the next assistant secretary of Indian affairs will face, including economic development, education, law enforcement, tribal recognition and trust reform. He also said that Indian health requires special attention.
“I remember the many times that I have been in Indian reservation communities. In my mind’s eye, I can see the faces of people, people that I love and care for, that suffered the effects of poverty,” EchoHawk said.
He said his family, members of which attended the hearing, had been “blessed with education.”
“I would see it as my responsibility to do everything I can to see that every American Indian and Alaska Native receive an opportunity for a quality education and a good job and economic prosperity.”
Speaker after speaker praised EchoHawk.
Former committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, praised EchoHawk’s background and qualifications.
Committee Vice Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said EchoHawk was the “right man” for the job.
Alonzo Coby, chairman of the Fort Hall Business Council for the Shoshone Bannock Tribes, said EchoHawk provided “diligent and faithful service” when he represented the tribes for 10 years.
“We’re proud to support Larry EchoHawk’s nomination as the next assistant secretary of Indian affairs. We’re confident he’ll do an outstanding job in continuing his efforts to advance tribal sovereignty and economic self-sufficiency.”
The only snappish comments came from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was defeated in his bid for the presidency by Obama.
McCain told EchoHawk he had several questions concerning Indian gaming, which he said is “a tough issue that’s plagued us ever since we enacted IGRA (the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) a long time ago.”
Despite the “plague” of Indian gaming, McCain has been a frequent visitor of Indian casinos, including a room reserved for high stakes gamblers at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, according to a New York Times article.
Asked by McCain if he believes that “IGRC – the Indian Gaming Regulatory Commission – has sufficient authority to do its job,” EchoHawk said he does not know all the present details about how Indian gaming operates, but he looks forward to working with McCain and others to “get up to speed” on the subject.
McCain interrupted before EchoHawk could complete his comment.
“That is not a very good answer, sir. I will expect some answers before I vote for your confirmation. I have to deal with this issue regularly, regularly,” McCain said twice for emphasis.
“We see, for example, Native American tribes going into an area that is off-reservation and purchasing that land in order to use it for Indian gaming. This happens all the time; it happens all over the country. I’m sure you must be aware of that situation.”
While “reservation shopping” was a hot buzz word among opponents of Indian gaming a few years back, the controversy has cooled considerably since Interior officials established during congressional testimony that off-reservation gaming has been approved three times since IGRA was enacted in 1988.