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Obama to replace Hopi U.S. attorney

WASHINGTON – Diane J. Humetewa, the first female Native American U.S. attorney in history, will soon be out of a job – and not because she’s doing a bad job, either. Instead, she will become a casualty of the political appointee process that comes with each new presidential administration.

Humetewa took the oath of office to become a U.S. attorney from Arizona in December 2007 and was formally sworn in a month and a half later.

Indian country found big reason to celebrate.

Not only was the longtime tribal justice advocate breaking a glass ceiling, she was rising to the heights of a system that had recently experienced the controversial firings of several U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Many of the fired U.S. attorneys happened to be strong in the area of tribal justice, so Humetewa was seen to be filling a big void – and she was doing so under the Bush administration, which wasn’t exactly known for going out of its way to promote Indian faces to positions of power.

Humetewa would ultimately oversee a plethora of tribal justice issues in her state, and she made it part of her agenda to highlight Native safety and justice concerns on the national level, too.

In an interview with Indian Country Today in June 2008, Humetewa noted that she had previously served as a tribal liaison under former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton, and once she was promoted to the position herself, she joined the Native American Issues Subcommittee, made up of U.S. attorneys who have Indian country jurisdiction.

“Our responsibility is to inform the attorney general about our issues, and therefore he is apprised of them,” Humetewa explained.

“We suggest solutions, and we may come up with positions with respect to what we’re doing in our offices. We have great responsibility to take our grass-roots knowledge of our districts up to the attorney general level.”

She also felt it was crucial to communicate with tribal governments, so they could recognize, understand and be participants in the federal judicial system.

“It’s important to help the leaders of our tribal nations understand the reality that, today, this is their system, and they have to pay attention to it.

“We want them to be aware that a lot of the work in Arizona is being done at the grass-roots level of tribal law enforcement. And we always welcome their input.”

Humetewa admitted that her work – often centered on homicides, sexual assaults and other forms of battery – was often depressing, but she said she found the challenges of the job to be another avenue to connect with folks to try to turn the situation around, especially on reservations.

When asked how long she expected to hold the position, she said she tried not to spend too much time thinking about it, as the decision was outside of her control.

When the new presidential administration took office, it was in President Barack Obama’s control. And word soon came that Obama would ask Humetewa to step down.

Democrats who had ties to Obama’s campaign and transition team said in mid-June the replacement would likely be Dennis Burke, a former top aide to former Gov. Janet Napolitano, who now serves as Obama’s homeland security chief.

Burke is not widely known to be well-versed in Indian justice issues.

When asked why Obama would replace a history-making Native American tribal justice official – when the president himself has noted the need for more American Indians in top political positions – White House officials noted that it is not unusual for presidents to want to fill political appointee positions with allies.

It may be a political reality, but it is not one that sits well with those who know Humetewa and her work.

Thomas Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney and lawyer in Minnesota, said she has inherent credibility on Native justice issues that doesn’t come naturally for most U.S. attorneys.

“Diane has been an amazing representative,” said Heffelfinger, who was invited six months ago by Humetewa to the Navajo Nation to discuss school violence issues. He has strong knowledge in the area as a result of overseeing legal issues involving the Red Lake reservation shootings of 2005.

“It’s unfortunate that the political appointee process is going to remove a really qualified U.S. attorney.”

Still, Heffelfinger noted that it would have been unusual for a Bush appointee – even a Native American U.S. attorney – to hold on to the job.

John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, said that despite the political reality of the situation, many tribal leaders have been strongly supportive of Humetewa staying in the position, and are disappointed she will be replaced.

“It is a loss, for sure,” Dossett said. “But it is not a surprise.”

He didn’t know how likely it would be for the Obama administration to appoint another Native American U.S. attorney, but he noted that NCAI has been pleased with the choices of Native Americans that the administration has made thus far to serve in key positions.

“The most important thing is for good resumes to keep going forward to the administration, so they have folks to consider for these positions,” Dossett said, adding that NCAI has been forwarding resumes since the administration’s beginning.

Dossett noted that many positions within the administration at varying levels are still open.

Humetewa could not be reached for comment on her departure.