WASHINGTON – News that President Barack Obama is close to selecting Larry EchoHawk as assistant secretary of Indian affairs is receiving mixed reactions from tribal officials and their surrogates. Many readily admit he’s a strong advocate for Indian country, but his past stances on tribal gaming are a sticking point for some.
EchoHawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, was the first American Indian elected to a constitutional statewide office, having served as attorney general of Idaho from 1991 to 1995. Before that, he served two terms in the Idaho Legislature, where he worked on several tribal issues.
EchoHawk’s name surfaced as Obama’s possible choice for assistant secretary of Indian affairs – a job that would put him in charge of the BIA – soon after the new president’s inauguration Jan. 20.
In an e-mail, EchoHawk told Indian Country Today that he could not comment on the speculation.
But in a speech given at a forum hosted by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians in California Jan. 24, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said that EchoHawk had been selected by Obama to lead the agency. Transition officials did not respond by press time to inquiries asking to confirm Inouye’s statement.
Some in Indian country have found the selection of EchoHawk to be natural. They point to his political record, as well as his family’s longtime Indian advocacy as plusses.
EchoHawk’s brother, John, serves as the executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, and he has sat on Obama’s transition team focused on the Interior Department. Several other family members are lawyers who specialize in tribal representation.
Since exiting Idaho politics, EchoHawk has worked as a faculty member at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School where he has taught courses in criminal law, criminal procedure and federal Indian law. He is also a senior partner with the EchoHawk Law Offices in Pocatello, Idaho.
EchoHawk’s background aside, detractors have been quick to announce concerns about his possible selection.
Lawyer Scott Crowell, who has represented several tribes over many decades, recently issued a letter saying that EchoHawk’s commitment to Indian gaming was lacking when he served as Idaho’s attorney general.
Crowell said EchoHawk once called on Idaho’s governor to change the language of state legislation so the state no longer would have a legal obligation under the Indian Gaming Rights Act to negotiate for Class III gaming with Idaho’s tribes.
“Imagine that, while at the table with a federal obligation to negotiate in good faith, Larry Echohawk instead headed up the extraordinary effort to change Idaho law to deprive tribes of their federal and inherent rights to operate Class III games on their lands,” Crowell wrote.
“Regardless of what other credentials and supporters that advocate for Larry EchoHawk’s appointment may exist, these facts and these circumstances demonstrate that he does not have the commitment to Indian country required for the important office of assistant secretary of Indian affairs.”
Lawyer Scott Wheat, an associate of Crowell, told ICT there are many who share concerns over EchoHawk’s past decisions regarding tribes.
“Most of us were not advised that Larry was being vetted until this past Monday [Jan. 19],” Wheat said.
“I expect many tribes to formally and informally oppose. I have committed to working tirelessly to derail Larry’s appointment. After what Larry did to the Idaho tribes, I am confounded that he has made it this far in the vetting process.”
Despite the strong criticism, some tribal leaders in Idaho are supportive of EchoHawk’s possible selection.
Noting that Crowell used to represent the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes on gaming matters, the tribe’s chairman, Alonzo Coby, wrote in a statement that the current tribal council does not share in the disapproval.
“In response to Mr. Crowell’s statement on Larry EchoHawk’s position relating to Indian gaming, the record should be clear that Larry EchoHawk supports the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and recognizes that it is the responsibility of the assistant secretary to faithfully execute the law,” Coby wrote.
“The EchoHawk law firm, which includes Larry’s sons Paul EchoHawk and Mark EchoHawk, has provided nearly 10 years of legal services to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and continue to provide excellent legal services. They have worked on a number of important issues for the tribes, including gaming matters. Specifically, Mark EchoHawk recently served for six months as the interim executive director for the Fort Hall Casino. We are confident that Larry’s possible service as assistant secretary would be beneficial to tribal interests, including the continued development of Indian gaming enterprises.”
Coby added that EchoHawk, as attorney general, had a “legal and ethical duty” to provide advice on state issues and said EchoHawk did so “according to his oath of office, and he did not advocate against Indian gaming specifically at any time.”
Crowell defended his criticism in a second letter, writing the “current Tribal Council may feel differently, but the Tribal Council at the time felt so strongly about Mr. EchoHawk’s actions to file a federal lawsuit alleging his actions were bad faith negotiation under IGRA.”
“Additionally, it should be noted that in 1995, when Larry EchoHawk sought the office of governor for the state of Idaho, he sought the official endorsement of the National Indian Gaming Association, which request was rejected for these same facts and circumstances,” Crowell wrote.
“These are not hidden facts – they were well-known and discussed at the time.”
While it is unknown whether the critiques have reached Obama’s ears, it is clear that federal lawmakers are paying attention.
Inouye, when he made his announcement regarding EchoHawk, said tribal leaders “might consider the personal qualities that a man or woman brings to public service, rather than placing too much emphasis on what he or she has had to do or say in their former official capacities.”
“I would ask you, for instance, to use me as an example,” said Inouye, who formerly sat on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“All of you know, for I have said it many times that I am adamantly opposed to gaming. I have held that position throughout my public life, and the citizens of Hawaii know that I will never support gaming in Hawaii.
“But when it comes to Indian country, my first and most fundamental belief is my belief in the significance of your sovereignty, and your rights as governments to exercise that sovereignty.”
“So I would ask you to take the time to get to know Larry Echohawk, and maybe begin with a basic assumption that he would not have agreed to serve in this capacity if he were not committed to bringing about much needed change for Native communities that have been disenfranchised for generations.”
It was unknown as of press time when Obama would make an official announcement regarding the BIA selection.