WASHINGTON, D.C. - The new deputy commissioner for Indian Affairs, Sharon Blackwell, is no stranger to the workings of the bureau and no stranger to hard work in the face of controversy.
Blackwell took over the office vacated by Hilda Manuel who retired a few weeks ago.
"Sharon Blackwell has the sharp legal mind, the management experience and the dedication to public service that is required for success in this tremendously demanding position," said Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover.
"We are very fortunate to have her onboard to help guide the agency in the difficult months and years ahead."
Blackwell served as special assistant to the director of the BIA since 1997, served as field solicitor for Interior's Tulsa Field Office where she represented the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma in judicial matters. She also served as legal counsel to two BIA regional offices and 16 agencies serving 42 tribes, bands and towns in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.
She will manage more than 10,000 employees throughout BIA headquarters in the 12 regional offices and 83 agencies. But more than that, she comes to the BIA at a time when criticism of the bureau is heated and a major court case, charging mismanagement of trust responsibilities for Individual Indian Money account holders, takes up a great deal of time and space with the media.
Blackwell, however, said she was not in the dark about the issues and one of her major focus areas will be to continue the work and help resolve the trust fund issue.
She was asked during a phone interview what she had seen and experienced in her short time in the position and what challenges she perceives.
"I have seen a lot of good work and good people that work for the BIA and I've seen a lot of challenges, too. Perhaps the most important is getting the BIA geared for the new millennium and ready to move swiftly in response to tribal concerns." That includes "concerns of the individual Indian landowners whose interests we are concerned with ...."
Blackwell said the bureau is "essentially ready to move forward to address the issues that come up and the concerns that they raise."
Prominent among issues is the trust fund responsibility and the accountability of managing the funds for tribes and individuals.
"One of the things I hope to do is assist in the improvement of Indian trust assets management to improve and make ourselves more accountability to tribes and individual Indians and managing the precious resources that we find in Indian country."
Additionally, she said what she finds most intriguing "is working to achieve resolution of problems that have plagued Indian country, issues like law enforcement. Certainly I hope to work with the director of the Office of Indian Education Program to continue the examination of our school facilities."
She would work, she said, to generally "be more accountable over the delivery of federal services to Indian people on reservations and Indian lands beyond reservations and dependent Indian communities and, of course, to the Indian allottees who individually own lands."
Resolution of the trust fund account controversy will plague a new administration in the BIA following the November election. Blackwell was asked if she thought the bureau could resolve this issue to the satisfaction of the Individual Indian Money account holders and the tribes.
"We'll give it one heck of a try. There are a number of reasons and circumstances that brought us to this place. And that is that for many years there has been neglect, issues that plagued Indians in Indian country. The neglect was not due because they didn't have the heart to correct them, there weren't the resources to address them.
"I believe now, with friends in Congress and others who are giving some of the needs the kind of attention and resources that have been needed for decades, ... we have the opportunity to attempt to resolve the kinds of issues you speak of."
Gover has indicated he would return as assistant secretary after a new president takes office. But, Blackwell explained she intends "to stay on this position as deputy commissioner is a career position. It is not subject to the political winds and fortunes of a new administration. Certainly a new administration would have some leeway in moving some places and I can't anticipate that.
"My plans are to be here and direct this organization with some 10,000 employees toward meeting our trust responsibilities.
Blackwell is a member of the Omaha Tribe. Her family name is Provost. She is also Muscogee Creek on her mother's side. She grew up on the Navajo Reservation.
"I think that background has a good deal to do with helping me focus on needs of reservation Indians and Indians that live beyond, what we are fond of saying here, the Beltway. That as been my focus throughout my entire life."
Blackwell graduated from the University of New Mexico Law School. She said she finds her home in the Southwest or actually any place in Indian country because, she said, she always finds someone she is related to. "That is as much a part of my background as anything."