On a clear, crisp Alaskan winter day in February, Tara Sweeney, Inupiaq, was just returning from a cross country ski outing.
“I'm just enjoying being back home,” she said cheerfully.
A few weeks prior, she had been thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., finishing up her term as assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian affairs — a complex role which requires one to serve more than 500 diverse tribes, all while navigating old treaties, new community initiatives, and ongoing tribal sovereignty debates.
When Sweeney stepped into the position in 2018, she was prepared to take on such challenges. Some would be familiar to Indian Country, like broadband inconsistencies and land disputes. Others would turn out to be unique to the past two years, including a global pandemic that disproportionately affected Native communities, and an increasingly polarized political landscape.
As the first Alaska Native to hold the position, she was also prepared to elevate the complexities and diverse experiences of Alaska’s 231 tribes. (Although Sweeney is quick to point out that Alaska Native leader Morris Thompson, Commissioner of the BIA in the 1970s, paved the way for her and other Alaska Natives who have worked in the federal government.)
“Every generation does its best in the face of challenges and opportunities that we face as Natives. These challenges and opportunities come like drifts of snow, sometimes gently, and sometimes like a fierce blizzard,” she said in her final letter to tribal leaders as assistant secretary.
Two years after she first started the position, Sweeney has an extensive list of accomplishments, ranging from new public safety initiatives like Operation Lady Justice, which addressed the murdered and missing Indigenous women and children epidemic, to educational operations, like providing wifi on school buses so kids could do their homework on long school commutes.
Other achievements she’s proud of include separating the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education budgets, updating the Hall of Tribal Nations, streamlining administrative processes, creating Missing and Murdered American Indian and Alaska Native Awareness Day, and highlighting the lack of broadband across Indian Country.
Through each new obstacle, Sweeney relied on two main factors to guide her work: one, her Inupiaq values, which she viewed as a compass in all she did; and two, a dedication to listening to others, and having real conversations about the issues at hand.
“I would seek first to understand the situation, then to be understood,” she explained to Indian Country Today. “Certainly, it reinforced the importance of listening and doing your homework, not just making rash decisions, but understanding the gravity of the types of decisions that you're making, and ensuring that you're making decisions with the best available information.”
Sweeney was raised in Utqiagvik, Alaska’s northernmost village, where her family has a long history of service. Her great grandfather created the Inupiaq alphabet and translated the New Testament into Inupiaq, so their community could learn to read the language and hear the word of God in their Native tongue. Her mother served in the Alaska State Legislature, and her grandmother was a nurse and teaching aide — a family tree which acts as a reminder that public service takes many forms.
“My most revered role models always imparted the importance of serving our people. So growing up I knew that I would find ways to serve our Native peoples,” she explained. “While I didn’t think it would be as a public servant, I am honored for that opportunity to serve.”
At the time of her confirmation, Sweeney was already a well-known leader, with years of experience at Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, her region’s Alaska Native Corporation. She decided to put her name forward for the assistant secretary position after discussing it with her family and mentors, and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate soon after.
She expected to focus on empowering communities through economic development and growth when she first went into the role. Along the way, she also addressed issues related to education, public safety, and energy development.
FINDING COMMON GROUND
For each different subject matter, Sweeney consistently relied on her approach of listening, learning, and then acting. With more than 500 tribes in the United States all consisting of different histories, laws, and cultures, this approach seems to almost be a necessity. No tribe has the same exact considerations — Indigenous life in the nation’s northernmost region is going to differ from that in the nation’s southernmost area.
These differences also mean there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to challenges in Indian Country, Sweeney explained. Even within tribes, there can be sharply contrasting opinions, on everything from resource development to enrollment policies. But she did believe there were some similarities in the way certain tribes approached obstacles. As she travelled across the country and witnessed this dynamic, one factor stuck out to her.
“Tribes that were successful, were the ones that were willing to sit down and have a conversation. That could get to a point where people can find the common ground,” she said.
She witnessed this in regards to Operation Lady Justice, which was accomplished through a combined effort from local organizations that had spent years advocating for action, all the way up to officials within the White House who had previously been unaware of the MMIW crisis. Everywhere Sweeney went during her first months in the U.S. Department of Interior, leaders and community members were underscoring the need to find a solution for the tragic epidemic. So, after consulting with various tribes across the country and coordinating with different federal government departments, Sweeney and her team crafted a plan.
It took longer than Sweeney had expected for the initiative to reach a point where it could be signed into law by the former President Donald Trump. But the time was worth it and the disciplined approach necessary, Sweeney said “because I believe in getting things right, not just getting things done.”
The end result was seven of the first ever cold case offices focused specifically on murdered and missing Indigenous individuals, and a more extensive and data-backed approach for solving ongoing cases.
Sweeney also saw the value of listening and finding common ground throughout her own experiences in Washington. During her confirmation process, Heidi Heitkamp, former senator of North Dakota, approached Sweeney with a problem. For Indigenous communities in the state, there wasn’t a quick way to do background checks on the adults that Native foster kids were being placed with. In response, Sweeney implemented an innovative solution: kiosks that allow social workers and tribal law enforcement to access background information on individuals that would be in contact with the foster kids, ensuring a more safe and timely process for those involved. There are now 90 tribes that have received these Tribal Access Program kiosks.
“That was something that was really important to Senator Heitkamp. And after learning about it from her, it became important to me, especially knowing that we had the ability to make an impact in our communities,” she said.
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But policy changes weren’t always influenced by the current politicians in Washington.
Sweeney also found that decisions could be impacted by career officials and solicitors that had been working with the Department of Interior through multiple administrations. One example involved the back-and-forth case of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe land dispute. In 2015, the Massachusetts tribe received more than 300 acres of land in trust, after an Obama administration court case was approved by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The Trump Administration filed an appeal to the ruling only a few years later. When Sweeney came into office, she said that she “signed the decision that had been worked on for years by the career solicitors.” It was most likely those same career solicitors who would be reviewing the decision again for the third time, this instance under the Biden Administration, explained Sweeney. In late February, the Interior Department decided to withdraw its appeal in the case of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe v. Zinke.
While Sweeney emphasized her department’s bipartisan solutions, not all aspects of the recent political landscape have been as collaborative. When asked if the more divisive moments of the last four years ever impacted the Department of Interior’s work, Sweeney said they tried to concentrate on their own mission.
“I didn't pay attention to the noise. Those that know me, know that I'm extremely mission and results oriented,” she said. “I went to D.C. to serve American Indians and Alaska Natives in the capacity as assistant secretary and to make a positive impact on the lives of our people. And so I focused on the mission, and I focused on getting results.”
Still, her time as assistant secretary wasn’t completely unaffected by the political tensions typical of this era. In one instance, she found herself the subject of a Twitter attack — not from Trump, but from New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
In the tweet, Sen. Schumer accused Sweeney of “diverting funds for tribal governments during coronavirus to for-profit Alaska Native Corporations.”
Those more familiar with Alaska Native corporations, such as Alaska officials, immediately drew attention to the fact that Sen. Schumer had recently voted to enable the very action he condemned in his post — the CARES Act. In fact, Sweeney had no influence over coronavirus relief funding going towards Alaska Native corporations, because the funding specifications were under Congressional jurisdiction.
“I can’t speak to why politicians do what they do… but it probably would have been more effective to pick up the phone to have a conversation to understand,” she said of the tweet.
Misunderstandings and controversies related to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and the Alaska Native Corporate system in general, cropped up a few times throughout Sweeney’s years in office.
Much of this stems from confusion from non-Alaskans over why Alaska Native corporations exist, and what purpose they serve. The Alaska Native Corporate system was established by Congress in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which created 12 private, for-profit Alaska Native regional corporations. The corporations would oversee a combined 45.5 million acres of land, in exchange for the extinguishment of aboriginal land rights. The act stated that Alaska Natives would be the shareholders of these corporations, ensuring that the state’s original inhabitants received benefits from the land rights settlement. Today, the Alaska Native corporations provide community services, scholarships, and jobs for the Native people they represent. They have also played a large role in efforts to offset the pandemic's negative impact on the community. However, there is still legal confusion over whether the corporations should be considered tribes for purposes of CARES Act funding. The situation has been further complicated by debates over how much funding should go to Alaska Native villages, which are considered tribes, versus Alaska Native corporations. Litigation is currently ongoing in the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve this issue.
“The beauty of our judicial system is such that when there is ambiguity, there is a process to provide clarity. And clearly, the Native community needs clarity on this issue. And clarity is welcome,” she said.
While some Alaska Native communities were supportive of ANCSA at the time of its passage, Sweeney emphasized that many in her home region, the Arctic Slope, weren't. In their point of view, the land rights settlement was forced. Now, they viewed it as the government mandated institution that they had to work through in order to achieve results for the community — so of course they would utilize it. For this reason, it was particularly ironic that she would come under attack from Congress, seeing as she was navigating a system that Congress itself had designed.
But it wasn’t the lack of ANCSA understanding that left an impression on Sweeney. She says that having patience and educating others is often a part of any Native official’s responsibilities. Rather, it was those who were eager to sow division, instead of work together, that left her disappointed.
“It's extremely disappointing when individuals seek to divide the Native community without fully understanding the nature and the history of these organizations and why they were created,” she said.
She believes this incident could be seen as a general lesson for Indigenous communities.
“We are all Native people. And by working together, we are stronger than we are if we are divided,” she explained. “You can agree to disagree in certain areas, but that shouldn't stop you from making progress where there is common ground.”
Sweeney is not sure what her next move will be. For now, she’s taking time off, spending days outdoors in her home state of Alaska, and learning to cross country ski. But regardless of her future role, she plans to continue serving Native communities throughout her career.
After an eventful few years in Washington, she is thinking of the future generations of Native leaders — and hopes that public service isn’t something people shy away from.
“It's important to put yourself out there, and even though you may make mistakes, or there's a lot of responsibility that bears down on you, that should never be a reason to not serve — that shouldn't stop anyone.”