WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama announced August 2 that he was nominating Kevin Washburn to become Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
If confirmed by the Senate, Washburn will take over the role from the acting director currently in that position, Del Laverdure, who came to the position in late-April after Larry Echo Hawk retired to take on a leadership position with the Mormon Church. The Senate is not currently in session until mid-September, so that would be the earliest time it could confirm him. If Congress goes into full recess, Obama could appoint Washburn to the role without Senate approval, although no one up for this federal Indian leadership position has ever been appointed that way in the past.
Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, has been dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law since June 2009, teaching gaming and criminal law classes while presiding over the program. He has been an Indian-focused legal academic for much of the 2000s, having served in top teaching positions at the University of Arizona, the University of Minnesota, and Harvard Law School.
"I have accepted the nomination and the President of the United States has forwarded my nomination to the United States Senate for confirmation. In light of the presidential election, it is not clear when that will happen," Washburn said in a letter addressed to his school. He plans to stay on as dean in the interim.
Obama said in a statement that Washburn has “demonstrated knowledge and dedication throughout” his career, and that he is grateful he has chosen to take on this role.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar applauded the nomination. “Kevin Washburn has a keen understanding of the many issues that affect Indian country,” he said in a statement. “His strong professional and academic experience will be a key asset to the Department as we continue to strengthen the integrity of the government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes and empower Native American and Alaska Native communities. He will be an excellent addition to our team.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, said Washburn has been a strong leader at the University of New Mexico. "UNM's School of Law has flourished under the direction of Kevin Washburn,” he said in a statement. “Like former Assistant Secretary Larry Echo Hawk, Kevin will bring to the position an in-depth understanding of the issues that are important to tribes in New Mexico. That, along with his wide range of law experience on the state, tribal and federal levels will greatly benefit Indian country and the Department of the Interior.”
Udall said that as a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he will push for Washburn’s “swift confirmation," but it isn’t clear that the full Senate will be as prepared to act fast in this politically-charged election season.
Before Washburn’s life in academia, he was the general counsel for the National Indian Gaming Commission from 2000 to 2002, and was an Assistant United States Attorney in New Mexico from 1997 to 2000. He worked as a trial attorney in the Indian Resources Section of the U.S. Department of Justice from 1994 to 1997.
Washburn’s nod comes at a time when Laverdure is embattled by ramifications of his agency breaking two laws involving Indian country, one involving biennial reporting of tribal labor force data, and another involving the annual publishing of a list of federally recognized tribes.
Interior officials have also cited staffing problems in recent months as reasons that the agency has made recent mistakes, such as when it failed to send an official to testify on tribal federal recognition at a hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs in late-June.
Washburn will be expected to clean up these latest problems and take action on a variety of issues that have long plagued the agency, such as reforming the Indian trust system—a process currently underway, but that has many questions attached to it.
Washburn is widely seen as a strong legal scholar, and nothing in his background to date has been raised as a major issue that could prevent his nomination, although he has taken positions on Indian gaming, racetrack gaming, Internet gaming, and redistricting that will surely draw the attention of some senators who may not want to act quickly on his confirmation.
Indian legal scholars have long called for a role for Washburn in the federal system with some saying that he would be an excellent Indian candidate to preside over a federal court.
His predecessor, Larry Echo Hawk, was confirmed by the Senate on May 19, 2009, after being nominated by Obama a month before on April 20, 2009. Some tribal officials had raised questions about Echo Hawk’s positions on Indian gaming matters when he was formerly a politico in Utah, but the issue did not plague his nomination process.
If confirmed, Washburn will have some old friends at the agency, including Hilary Tompkins, the Interior Department solicitor, who previously taught at the University of New Mexico School of Law. He had positive words to say about Tompkins when she was nominated for her position in 2009, telling Indian Country Today Media Network at the time that “her students adored her.”
Washburn received his B.A. from the University of Oklahoma and a J.D. from Yale Law School.