WASHINGTON – Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., is President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to lead the U.S. Department of Interior. Calling Salazar “my dear friend,” Obama announced his selection Dec. 17 with the senator, decked in a cowboy hat, standing smiling at his side.
“Among the many responsibilities Ken will bear as our next secretary of the Interior is helping ensure that we finally live up to the treaty obligations that are owed to the first Americans,” Obama said.
“We need more than just a government-to-government relationship – we need a nation-to-nation relationship, and Ken and I will work together to make sure that tribal nations have a voice in this administration.”
“I look forward to helping address the challenges faced by our Native American communities all across this nation,” Salazar said after Obama made his announcement.
If Salazar is confirmed by the Senate, he will oversee a department that encompasses the BIA. The BIA handles a substantial amount of federal relations with Indian tribes, as does the department’s Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians.
As part of the position, Salazar will become the government’s de facto defendant in the long-running Cobell v. Kempthorne (previously known as Cobell v. Norton and Cobell v. Babbit) class-action lawsuit brought by American Indian representatives against the U.S. government. The case, which centers on income and pay-out of monies that are generated by trust and restricted American Indian lands, is currently in the process of appeal.
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Salazar, who is Hispanic, won the seat of former Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, after he retired in 2004. He will replace current Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who has been unpopular with many American Indians and tribes.
Despite being from opposing political parties, Nighthorse Campbell had many positive things to say about Salazar’s new role in Obama’s Cabinet.
“President-elect Obama couldn’t have picked a better person,” Nighthorse Campbell said.
“Kenny has a really strong voting record on Indian water rights, land claims, and things of that nature – he’s just a wonderful candidate.
“I think, very frankly, that Native America is going to be very happy with him.”
Salazar previously led Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources and worked as the state’s attorney general. He also served on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
While in the Senate, Salazar has co-sponsored what have been viewed as positive Indian country-focused bills, including the National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site Trust Act, bills to extend methamphetamine funding to tribes, and a bill focused on honoring Code Talkers.
Some media outlets have speculated that Salazar will curb several recently controversial Interior decisions regarding energy development. Along those lines, he was critical this year of Interior moves under President George W. Bush focused on decisions to open his state’s Roan Plateau for drilling. He said regulations to open land for oil shale development would “sell Colorado short.”
Interior oversees national parks and other public lands, while setting policy for oil and gas drilling, mining and other resource management.
Salazar also recently raised questions regarding a $2.5 billion coal power plant sought by the Navajo Nation, expressing concerns about the impact on the environment in Colorado and New Mexico.
Colorado is home to two tribes, the Southern Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Tribal leaders did not respond by press time to requests for comment on Salazar’s appointment and what it could mean for them.
Salazar is the second Hispanic slated for Obama’s Cabinet after Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is the president-elect’s choice to lead the Commerce Department. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus had been diligently lobbying Obama to add another Latino to his Cabinet.
Salazar would also be the second Hispanic Interior secretary after Manuel Lujan Jr., who served under President George H.W. Bush.
A Native American has never headed Interior, although Kevin Gover, Pawnee/Comanche director of the National Museum of the American Indian, had been mentioned as a possible candidate this time around.
But Eileen Maxwell, Gover’s NMAI spokeswoman, told ICT Dec. 8, “There is no truth to the rumor. [Gover] has not heard anything from the transition team, nor does he expect to.”
Nighthorse Campbell said that “maybe in time it will come” for an American Indian to head Interior. He noted that the Hispanic community, which contains a lot of votes nationwide, “was leaning pretty heavily to have another Hispanic beyond Richardson to serve in the Cabinet.”
Three current and former lawyers with the Native American Rights Fund, including John Echohawk, Keith Harper and Robert Anderson, have served as members of Obama’s transition team, advising him on Interior-related matters. Seven Native Americans serve on the transition team overall.