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United South and Eastern Tribes appoints new executive director

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - For years before Mike Cook became executive director of United South and Eastern Tribes, he dreamed about landing this job.

Cook, a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe at Akwesasne, N.Y., is in the process of moving his wife and their two youngest children to Nashville, where he recently started his appointment as executive director of USET, one of the largest nonprofit, intertribal organizations in the country, representing 24 federally acknowledged tribes in both regional and national arenas.

''It's very humbling. This is a dream position of mine that I'd been looking at for a long time. I see this as doing something I've really wanted to do for Indian country,'' Cook told Indian Country Today.

Cook has been involved with USET since the 1980s while working for the St. Regis Mohawk. At that time, a member of Cook's tribe was elected president of the organization and participated directly in USET meetings and other activities.

''So this is a position that I really thought about and really decided I would like to do someday; and when the opportunity arose, I had talked enough about it over the years, so my family was ready for this and I have their support and we're jumping into this all together,'' Cook said.

In addition to their two school-aged children, Cook and his wife have a child in college, two adult children and three grandchildren.

The executive director of USET is responsible for carrying out the policies of the board of directors, which includes 48 people - two representatives from each of the 24 member tribes. It may sound next to impossible to schedule a meeting for 48 people, but the organization runs very smoothly and will be celebrating its 40th anniversary next year, Cook said.

''I inherited a tremendous staff here that really does a great job,'' he said.

The board of directors holds an annual and semi-annual meeting and a third meeting, called Impact Week, which is held in Washington in early February and focuses on contact with The Hill. Cook and his staff provide board members with background information and any other resources they may need for their meetings and deliberations.

''Our challenge is to facilitate consultations. The federal government and its agencies have made some good strides over the past years in trying to initiate and implement the consultation process that's been mandated by the president. The challenge we have at USET is to keep that process going and enhance it as much as we can,'' Cook said.

Protecting tribal sovereignty is ''the utmost priority'' of the board, he said.

''So when there are activities that threaten that sovereignty status of tribes as a whole, then you'll see USET joining up with other Indian organizations to respond to it. We're here to all work together, and to be a watchdog to ensure that [the erosion of tribal sovereignty] does not happen,'' Cook continued.

USET works in groups and committees initiated by federal agencies, such as IHS, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the BIA, that provide federal funding for programs in Indian country.

''The challenge is to identify those items and issues that are common among members and be able to take that voice of USET to the various workgroups and committees, and also working with other Indian organizations across the country to do what's best for Indian country,'' Cook said.

USET has more than 25 staff members now and contracts with agencies such as the IHS, BIA, Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its consultation and coordination services.

After working for his own tribe for 10 years, Cook managed a foundation dedicated to improving health care for Native people in Okalahoma for five years, and administered programs and services for the Oneida Indian Nation (the owner of Four Directions Media, which publishes ICT) for the past 13 years.

''It was tough leaving. Oneida Nation treated me very well and it was a job I enjoyed doing, but it was really an ambition of mine to do this specific job. I have a lot of time vested in this organization indirectly so I look forward to vesting a whole lot more to it on a permanent basis,'' Cook said.