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Main EchoHawk detractors change minds

WASHINGTON – The tide has at least partially turned for Larry EchoHawk. Just a few short weeks ago, it seemed that the likely Obama administration appointee to head the BIA would be highly controversial to tribes, especially given his past stances on Indian gaming. But now, even his biggest public detractors have amended their critiques.

One of the most vocal of the naysayers had been Scott Crowell, a Washington state lawyer who has represented several tribes over many years. In January, he issued an open letter noting that when EchoHawk 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.

Crowell said at the time of his letter’s release that he wanted tribes nationwide to be aware of EchoHawk’s past choice to support states’ rights over tribal rights. He also seemed certain that more tribes and Indian groups would choose not to jump on EchoHawk’s bandwagon, despite his Pawnee heritage and his otherwise strong ties to pro-Indian advocacy.

But that largely did not happen. There have been few public comments against EchoHawk from tribes. The National Congress of American Indians has taken a wait and see approach, and some Native leaders have said they are pleased that President Barack Obama is considering an Indian for the position – no matter his past.

Even tribes in Idaho have recently forgiven EchoHawk; and, as Indian Country Today reported, that’s not a coincidence. Since the Crowell letter appeared, EchoHawk has done plenty of new outreach to tribes in his former home state to make amends for his gaming positions while serving in a powerful state government position. The tactic worked so well that some tribal leaders ended up sending letters of support directly to Obama.

Crowell and other individual detractors have been watching the changing tide. And it has influenced their new positions.

“I do find great encouragement in his recent words and if appointed, I wish upon him great success and accomplishments in furthering the interests of Indian country,” Crowell told ICT. “That includes standing up and taking issue with state attorney generals and other state officials who adopt, today, his bad-faith tactics taken as Idaho’s attorney general in 1992 – 1994.”

Lawyer Scott Wheat, an associate of Crowell, has had an even more dramatic change of heart. In January, he told ICT that he had “committed to working tirelessly to derail Larry’s appointment.”

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It’s now a completely different story.

“It is difficult for me to not try to forgive someone who admits they are wrong and commits to taking a better road,” Wheat said after learning about EchoHawk’s change of heart. “Larry EchoHawk’s apology to Idaho tribes and his stated commitment to being an advocate for Indian gaming if he is appointed and confirmed as the next assistant secretary for Indian affairs is a 180 degree turn around from his position on Indian gaming while serving as Idaho’s AG. It takes a lot to admit wrongdoing and to commit to taking a better road in the future. Larry deserves credit for that.”

Wheat said that if EchoHawk is appointed, he expects him to fully address his past gaming issues during his confirmation hearing.

He said it’s important for EchoHawk to reach out to all of Indian country and “make clear that he has disabused himself of his prior positions on Indian gaming and that, as the next assistant secretary, he will advocate against the very positions he formerly advanced as Idaho’s AG.”

“If Larry is confirmed and walks his talk, I will be amongst his strongest supporters,” Wheat said.

EchoHawk has indicated that he will shed more light on his current views if appointed. “I cannot make public comment until after an official nomination is made,” he told ICT Feb. 10.

While Crowell is so far pleased with EchoHawk’s recent behind-the-scenes outreach to Idaho tribes, he still says he has no regrets about bringing attention to the past. He also said he does not accept the argument made by some that EchoHawk was simply doing his job.

“I find it incredulous that a state AG, sworn to uphold the laws of the state and the United States can use that oath to justify taking a leading role in changing state constitutional law to avoid the state’s federal obligations to Indian tribes. His opposition tactics came at a time when the very crux of the federal law was in jeopardy as states hid behind 11th Amendment immunity to avoid being held accountable for their bad faith negotiation tactics.

“Whether one supports him or not or whether he is confirmed or not, these facts and circumstances were properly brought forward,” Crowell said. “I believe a man is to be judged by his actions more than by his words, but it appears that he has learned much from the 20 years of tribal successes under IGRA.”