Potential Republican Native American appointees who would create and carry out the next federal Indian country agenda are making themselves known to the Trump administration.
Carlyle Begay, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and a politician in his own right, has already been chosen to have a position in President Donald Trump’s White House, according to a post Begay made on social media in December, but he and the White House have not yet publicly confirmed what that role will be. A Facebook group called the Navajo Nation Republican Party says he has been selected as White House Advisor on Indian Affairs. Indian affairs lawyers have also said they believe Begay could get the White House position, given information they have heard during the Trump transition, but Begay himself was circumspect in December, telling The Arizona Republic that he had been offered an unnamed White House position, yet he was still deciding whether he wanted to try for another job. He has not responded to requests from ICMN for clarification about his role.
Individuals who held the same position in the Obama administration were responsible for coordinating tribal policy at the very top level of government and helped oversee the annual White House Nations Tribal Conferences as well as the White House Council on Native American Affairs – both sanctioned by an executive order under President Barack Obama. Tribal leaders who have attended Native-focused meetings of the Trump transition team have pressed Begay to continue those duties in an attempt to strengthen tribal sovereignty, federal trust responsibilities to tribes, treaty rights, consultation, and economic and cultural self-determination.
Begay is already putting a Native stamp on the new administration, having been asked to give the opening invocation at the National Prayer Service, held January 21 at the National Cathedral. He gave his prayer in the traditional Navajo language.
“[I am h]onored to have prayed for the well-being of the country, the president, his administration and the new Congress,” Begay wrote January 22 on Twitter. The Navajo Nation Republican Party group says this was the first time the prayer service was opened by a Native American.
Begay is well known in Indian circles for being a former Arizona state senator, who began serving as a Democrat in 2014 after being appointed to the position, but who quickly switched parties to become a Republican the following year. Later in 2016, he ran for U.S. Congress as a Republican, but dropped out citing a crowded field and late start in the race. His wife, former Navajo Times editor Candace Begody-Begay, also ran as a Republican for the Arizona Senate in 2016 for her husband’s former seat, yet she ultimately failed to garner enough signatures to qualify for the race. He also worked on U.S. Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) re-election campaign last year and has received strong support from the senator.
Another possible Republican Native voice in the Trump administration is Jerry Ward, a former Alaska state senator, who was called on by the Trump transition team to become a tribal liaison in the fall.
“I might possibly have a more permanent position somewhere, yes, concerning Native American affairs,” he told Alaska Public Media in December. He also told the outlet that there are “a little under 560” federally recognized tribes, but there are actually 567. He added that he has a “fair amount” of contact with Alaska tribes, and he noted that it was the federal government’s responsibility to consult with tribes over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Ward, an Alaska Native Corporation shareholder, served as a state senator from 1997 to 2002; he has lost three state races since that time, and he was investigated by the FBI in 2009 on issues pertaining to corruption in Alaska politics, but he was never charged. He also served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in August and September, during which he wore a leather vest featuring Athabascan beadwork, Alaska Public Media reported.
As for the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs (ASIA) position at the U.S. Department of the Interior – the main overseer of tribal issues within the federal government – at least three names are receiving credence in tribal and federal circles: Jana McKeag, a Cherokee Nation citizen with extensive federal and legal Indian policy experience; Carl Artman, an Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin citizen who served as ASIA for a short period during the George W. Bush administration; and Gavin Clarkson, a Choctaw citizen with an esteemed background in academia focused largely on tribal economic policy and development.
In mid-January, the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes voiced its support for McKeag, stating in a resolution that Trump should appoint her as the next ASIA; she is also being supported in her bid by U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, as well as U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA). The council noted that she has more than 40 years of experience working with tribal governments on economic development, gaming, education, and sovereignty issues. She has previously worked at Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs for 12 years; she was one of the first commissioners on the National Indian Gaming Commission; she was the director of Native American Programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and she was a previous chairman of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.
McKeag, who currently serves as an Indian affairs lobbyist for her own firm, Lowry Strategies, said that she would like to be considered to become ASIA, and she noted in an interview that she has submitted her application materials to the administration.
“Yes, I am interested in the position of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs,” McKeag said, adding that she would be excited to work under U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), Trump’s pending Interior Secretary nominee. “I have heard that I’m on a shortlist, and I’m hoping to [soon] talk to Secretary-designate Zinke.”
McKeag said she would like to work within the administration to streamline the layers of regulation that tribes have to go through to get energy projects done on reservations, as well as increase tribal infrastructure development. “If I’m offered this opportunity, I think I could get a lot done for Indian country,” she added. “Even if I don’t get the job, I’m looking forward to working with Secretary Zinke in moving his agenda forward on behalf of Indian country.”
Artman’s name has also surfaced among Indian affairs experts as a potential ASIA nominee, as he previously held the role in 2007-08 and worked as the Associate Solicitor for Indian Affairs at Interior from 2005-07. He is currently a law professor at Arizona State University and directs its Tribal Economic Development Program.
Artman has not responded to requests for comment on this possibility, but McKeag said that she “had the greatest respect for him when he was assistant secretary—he did a great job.”
When asked whether he’d like to become the next ASIA, Clarkson, who has attended the two Trump transition Indian-focused meetings to date and who has shared his resume with the Trump team, said he would like to work in the administration wherever it might need him.
“It would be an honor to serve in any capacity in the Trump administration,” Clarkson said. “Many of the campaign’s themes about rural economic empowerment, reducing the burden of federal regulations, and creating jobs have strong resonance in Indian country, and I would be delighted to contribute to helping tribes realize the promise and opportunity I see in President Trump’s vision for the nation.”
An associate professor in the College of Business at New Mexico State University (NMSU) where he teaches business law and federal Indian law and policy, Clarkson has previously worked at Rice University, Harvard Business School, the University of Michigan, the University of Montana Law School and the University of Houston Law Center. His official NMSU biography notes that he has consulted, written, and published extensively on tribal finance and economic development, and he was a contributing author for the most recent edition of the Handbook of Federal Indian Law. “He has helped tribes raise more than $700 million for tribal governmental and entrepreneurial enterprises using a variety of financial mechanisms including taxable and tax-exempt bonds, bank credit facilities, and New Markets Tax Credits,” according to his bio.
Clarkson, who was previously considered for the Special Trustee position at Interior during the early Obama administration, was observed by attendees of the National Museum of the American Indian’s inaugural ball introducing himself to Zinke, and they posed for pictures together.
The professor proudly wore his black cowboy hat during the festivities, and he brought a red "Make Indian Country Great Again" baseball cap home for his son.