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New BIA head turns attention to Carcieri, gaming

WASHINGTON – Larry EchoHawk’s June 26 swearing in ceremony was a brief moment of respite from pressing Indian country matters for the new BIA chief as he now becomes steeped in issues of great importance to tribes, including the infamous Carcieri v. Salazar Supreme Court ruling and gaming concerns.

The ceremony was one of overall joy and thanks. There was dancing, drum beats and many happy Native faces. Several in attendance expressed confidence in EchoHawk’s abilities.

“Today is not a day for long speeches,” said EchoHawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. “It is a day for solemn oaths, a day for thanksgiving, and a day for prayers. I am honored to have been entrusted with this responsibility.”

He also thanked and recognized members of his Pawnee Nation, saying, “These are my people; this is my heritage.”

But what he didn’t mention is the slew of issues he has already weighed in on since his official swearing in May 22.

In a recent letter from his office, EchoHawk made clear his opinions on Carcieri, a February high court ruling that says the BIA cannot put land into trust for any tribe that is not recognized by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

The letter indicated that EchoHawk has firm beliefs about tribes that are successors in interest, such as the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, recognized in 1950, and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, recognized in 1975.

“There is no reason, on the face of the (1946 Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act), that the Keetoowah Band would have less authority than any other band or tribe,” he wrote.

In effect, EchoHawk is saying that tribes recognized after 1934 should have the same standing as those recognized by Congress before and during that year.

He further wrote that the Carcieri ruling “implicates many tribes” and said the “department is in the process of analyzing this and other issues raised by Carcieri.”

EchoHawk also said Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is “ready to go to Congress” in support of a fix to the ruling. Such a fix might see Congress change the words of the IRA to make it clear that tribes recognized after 1934 are no different than those which were covered under the law in 1934.

Another area of interest to tribes that EchoHawk didn’t mention during his ceremony involves Indian gaming.

During his time as Idaho attorney general in the early 1990s, 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.

Fresh on the job, EchoHawk is now reviewing Indian gaming policies.

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Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. said he’s already had a conversation with EchoHawk to discuss off-reservation casinos.

“I hope that with a new administration we have a new way of thinking about applications that are finite, focused, appropriate for the region, and have strong community support,” Schumer said.

Schumer’s position on off-reservation casinos is congruent with statements made by New York Gov. David Paterson in a recent letter to Salazar, which asked him to “undo a Bush administration policy that restricts taking off-reservation land into trust for gaming and prevents New York tribes from economic development.”

If tribal members at the ceremony had any qualms about EchoHawk’s Indian gaming stances, they kept mum.

Instead, members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation performed a dance and drum circle beat in EchoHawk’s honor.

During his speech, he specifically thanked the tribe for hiring him more than 30 years ago when he was just out of law school. Support from the tribe for EchoHawk to serve as the assistant secretary came quickly after his name was floated as a candidate.

Salazar, too, kept his remarks brief, saying that EchoHawk is becoming an important part of the Obama administration.

“Today is another milestone in President Obama’s agenda to empower Native American communities. Across the government, agencies are working together and with tribes to help build new schools, improve health care access, upgrade housing, fix roads and bridges, and make communities safer.”

Salazar, a former senator from Colorado, and EchoHawk, a former attorney general from Idaho, have long been acquaintances. They hope to have a good working relationship, and have promised tribes they will be proactive in their positions on behalf of Indian issues.

Many members of EchoHawk’s Pawnee Nation were also present to celebrate his new job, as were children from the Muckleshoot Tribal School, a BIE-funded school in Auburn, Wash., which serves the Muckleshoot Tribe.

Other tribal members, many who live in the Washington metro area, were in attendance. Department officials estimated that the ceremony was attended by more than 500 guests at the Department of the Interior’s Sidney R. Yates Auditorium.

EchoHawk previously served two terms in the Idaho state legislature in the 1980s before becoming the state’s attorney general in 1990. He was the first American Indian elected to a constitutional statewide office in the nation.

Before his new government role, EchoHawk had been working in Utah as a law professor at Brigham Young University. During the ceremony, he said it was a difficult decision to leave the university, as it had provided him with a comfortable life.

“I feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders,” EchoHawk said. “We will make this work.”