PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry EchoHawk received a standing ovation at the National Congress of American Indians’ annual conference after a speech marked by moments of intense emotion and repeated promises to stand up for Indian country.
EchoHawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in May, has spent much of the last six months traveling to Native communities.
In an hour-long speech punctuated by frequent bursts of spontaneous applause from delegates at the NCAI’s 66th annual conference and trade show, EchoHawk described his visits to dozens of American Indian and Alaska Native communities and laid out his vision for fulfilling his role as the top appointed official for Indian affairs in the Obama administration.
“I’ve been across Indian country since I haven’t worked in the federal government or been on the front battle line as you have. For 14 years, I’ve been a law professor so I needed to reconnect. All of this has been a learning process for me, that’s why I did it,” he said, and went on to describe some of the experiences that “will help to shape how I see things and what I will try to do – the priorities – as assistant secretary.”
The lessons learned on his travels prompted him to make strong commitments to improving Indian education, public safety and law enforcement, and economic development.
Each area EchoHawk visited provided him with a different lesson or insight around the themes of federal trust responsibility, public safety and law enforcement, education, economic development, treaty rights and the federal trust responsibility, sovereignty and cultural preservation.
The Great Plains, for example, forced him to think about safety.
“I hate to even say the word suicide, but we have to do more to protect our children, our young people,” EchoHawk said.
A visit to an Alaska village brought home the realization of “how the past negligence of the federal trust responsibility has been detrimental to Native people.”
In Alaska, EchoHawk walked along a deeply rutted mud road to visit a tribal elder. Outside the elder’s home was a bucket of raw sewerage.
“And once in awhile, a four wheeler comes by and picks it up and what do they do? They head down the road with the ruts and of course it’s going to spill out and who plays in the road? I need to see things like that. I need to see not just your successes, but your challenges and that will give me the energy and the commitment to try to do my job,” EchoHawk said, his voice cracking with emotion.
But he did see much of Indian country’s successes after visiting tribal nations with thriving gaming operations. When he was first nominated for the assistant secretary post by President Barack Obama in January, some critics opposed the nomination based on what they said were EchoHawk’s previous anti-gaming stances.
But EchoHawk said he has seen how revenues from gaming operations are used to build tribal nations and provide services to citizens.
“I get it now, I get it,” EchoHawk told the assembly.
He had praise for Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, whom he described as “one who looks out for Indian country.”
He told a story about accompanying Salazar to Utah during the arrest of a network of individuals allegedly involved in the sale, purchase and exchange of sacred artifacts, including some remains. A law enforcement officer brought in a book of photographs of the objects that was to be used as evidence, and showed it to him.
“I felt like I should not be looking at those objects. Other people view them as evidence, but those objects came from burial sites and undoubtedly in my mind from religious spiritual leaders of our nations from the past. Maybe – maybe – people will start to understand what that is all about,” EchoHawk said.
He also related a story about his visit to a longhouse of the Haundenosaunee Confederacy.
“And they spoke their Native language and began the meeting as they begin all their meetings – with prayer and communication and talk about their perspective of life and after they spoke in their Native language they translated it into English and it was beautiful. It’s what I think all people across the face of the globe need to hear.”
EchoHawk said the Interior Department was reviewing a Bush-era “guidance memorandum” that makes it almost impossible for tribes to acquire off-reservation land for gaming. He said the Bush administration had “slammed the brakes on future off-reservation gaming. We will not do that.”