WASHINGTON – Officials have confirmed that Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, is being vetted for the position of Native American affairs senior advisor in the Obama administration.
Officials familiar with workings inside the White House said that Kendall-Miller has been offered the job, and is now going through a vetting process. Her evaluation has been thorough, especially given the administration’s recent controversies involving nominees for other top positions.
Kendall-Miller has not responded to requests for comment. When reached by e-mail, her husband Lloyd Miller, a Native rights attorney, said late Feb. 18 that he could offer no comment. He did not confirm or deny whether his wife is being evaluated.
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Kendall-Miller, a Dena’ina Athabascan tribal member of the Native Village of Dillingham in Alaska, has long been respected throughout Indian country. She has ties to Obama, telling Indian Country Today in a September interview that she has personally known him since their days attending Harvard Law School together. She said at the time that she considered him to be a friend.
When Obama began running for president, Kendall-Miller quickly supported his candidacy, offering critical insights to his campaign on Alaska Native and Indian issues. Her involvement in the campaign became especially intense after Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin entered the race as John McCain’s running mate in August.
Kendall-Miller soon co-authored a widely-circulated paper, entitled “Sarah Palin’s Record on Alaska Native and Tribal Issues,” which offered a critique of the governor’s positions on Alaska Native issues. The document included arguments and evidence that Palin has been against Alaska Native subsistence fishing and hunting; has been lukewarm in her support of tribal sovereignty; and has not been supportive of Alaska Native language issues.
“It’s really important to pop [Palin’s] balloon,” Kendall-Miller told ICT at the time.
After Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, Kendall-Miller served as one of several Native delegates supporting him at the Democratic National Convention.
Before her assistance to Obama, Kendall-Miller earned a reputation as a tough lawyer, arguing the Venetie case before the U.S. Supreme Court in the late-1990s. The famous Indian country case centered on an Alaska Native tribe’s right to govern nearly two million acres under federal law. She argued unsuccessfully against future Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, who had previously appeared 25 times before the high court.
When Roberts was appointed to lead the Supreme Court in 2005, Kendall-Miller told news outlets that she feared he would limit tribal rights from the bench, which tribal and legal officials say he has already done.
She currently holds a legal position with the Native American Rights Fund, working for the nonprofit legal firm in its Anchorage office. According to her NARF biography, she was instrumental in winning the 2001 Katie John subsistence hunting and fishing rights case – an outcome which serves to protect those rights for Alaska Natives.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1991, Kendall-Miller served as a law clerk under Alaska Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz, and later worked for Alaska Legal Services.
Born in Seward, Alaska, Kendall-Miller was raised there and in Fairbanks. A high school dropout, she received her GED before excelling at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and then Harvard Law.
If she is ultimately chosen for the position, Kendall-Miller will become one of a handful of Alaska Native and Native Americans to have ever served in a presidential administration.
First lady Michelle Obama recently focused national attention on the new White House position when she visited the Department of the Interior Feb. 9. She said the president would soon appoint a senior policy advisor to his staff to work with tribes and the federal government on issues such as sovereignty, health care and education.
President Obama recently received accolades from Native Americans for appointing Jodi Archambault Gillette, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, as one of three deputy associate directors of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
In December, Wizipan Garriott, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was appointed First Americans public liaison, a newly created position in then President-elect Obama’s transition team.