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Old Wounds Still Plague Keith Harper’s Appointment, but Shouldn’t

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In recent years we’ve seen some big events come about for Indian country. We’ve seen the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, we’ve seen many tribal trust suits settled; we’re nearly finished with the second round of payments in Cobell, and the rollout of the land buy back plan. Just those few things can be measured in the billions of dollars for Indian country. We’ve also seen numerous appointments of Native men and women in high profile positions that have certainly been a high-water mark for Native people wishing to serve their country.

I recently read on this website that several prominent attorneys and activists in Indian country had questioned Keith Harper’s character; as someone who worked directly with him, I feel it is fair for me to express my thoughts on the matter.

From 2004 to 2006, I was honored to serve as the vice chairman and chairman of the Inter-tribal Monitoring Association of Indian Trust Funds (ITMA) that was funded by the Office of the Special Trustee. ITMA was instrumental in the facilitation of sorting out the myriad of issues associated with the Department of Interior’s trust responsibility to individual Indians and Tribal Nations. During my time at ITMA, whenever we held our meetings, we always extended an invitation to the representatives of the Cobell legal team to give us updates on the status of the case. Typically that was either John Echohawk or Keith Harper.

I have always known Keith to be professional and generous with his briefings. As with any attorney with active litigation, he was very careful with what he said, and everyone understood that many of the tribes who made up ITMA had ongoing litigation in the Court of Federal Claims. I chaired the meeting in ‘05 and attended the meeting in ‘10 that was referenced in the article where the allegation was made. I can say it just didn’t happen. Moreover, I never saw Keith resort to name-calling, or losing his temper, then or now. It’s just not the Keith I know.

Now that doesn’t mean that many in Indian country did not like the Cobell case—they didn’t like the way it took over how Indian issues were treated by the Bush Administration, so much so, it could be fairly argued that Cobell drove Indian policy in those days, meaning it wasn’t a healthy environment for anything good to come from Trust reform. This was made abundantly clear to me in 2005 when NCAI, ITMA and the Cobell legal team traveled across the country to support Sen. John McCain and Sen. Byron Dorgan’s introduction of bi-partisan, bi-cameral legislation to settle Cobell for nearly $8 billion, only to get a veto threat from the Bush Administration.

It is also fair to say, the case exposed a national scandal that had been going for generations where the federal government neglected the assets and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Indian families. In those days before the settlement of the case, it was clear that asking for an accounting was just the legal call for the court, but what it really represented was justice for Indian country, pure and simple.

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So there is a lot good that came from this case, but it also caused some legitimate hard feelings over some of the more explosive rhetoric made by one of the attorney’s, but it was not Keith. It’s not surprising to me that after nearly 20 years of litigation and politics of Trust reform and settlement of tribal claims, that some in Indian country are still bitterly divided over Cobell and one of the lawyers who worked on the case.

Look, reasonable people can have different opinions on how the Cobell case was managed. But in 2014, at a time when Indian country is on the verge of getting one of our own into a U.S. Ambassadorship, an article appeared in this respected publication that in my opinion fell short of the standards of professional journalism we all have come to expect from Indian Country Today.

I don’t want anyone to get defensive here, I don’t have a dog in this fight, and I have nothing to gain by expressing myself. I’ve been out of tribal elected office for four years and have no political agenda to advance. I know and respect everyone mentioned in the article, including Keith, so when I thought this piece was unfair, it is because I want only to see Keith get a fair vote of consideration by the U.S. Senate.

This is a time when we should be celebrating the success of one of our own. I know we can do better.

To have an American Indian in the U.S. Ambassadorship of Human Rights with a solid record of advocacy for Native rights is an incredibly high honor, and I hope Keith is just the first of many such appointments. Keith has received letters of support from over 110 Tribal Nations, organizations and national and international Human Rights groups. He was appointed by a president who has done a lot for Indian country, he’s been vetted by the FBI, and he’s been through the grueling process of approval of a senate committee.

He’s ready to serve our country.

Jim Gray is the former chief of the Osage Nation (2002-2010) who also served as chairman of the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association, board member of Native American Rights Fund, chairman of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes and two administrations as an advisor to Office of the Special Trustee. He is also the former Publisher of the Native American Times. Today, he is a tribal consultant working in Oklahoma.