WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, questioned Tara Sweeney, nominee to serve as the Department of Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. If confirmed, Sweeney would lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, and numerous other offices responsible for ensuring the Department of Interior fulfills the United States’ trust and treaty obligations to tribes.
“In my own role as vice chairman of this committee and as the elected representative of the 23 tribes in my home state of New Mexico, I have used three guiding principles: respect tribal sovereignty; promote tribal self-determination; and ensure that meaningful government-to-government consultation happens. I strongly believe that – in word and in deed – anyone confirmed to the position of Assistant Secretary must be guided by these same principles,” Udall said in his opening remarks.
Udall asked Sweeney to commit to advocating on behalf of Indian Country, including protecting important cultural sites and public lands like Chaco Canyon, in her work as assistant secretary. Udall continued by pressing Sweeney to utilize the assistant secretary’s role, if confirmed, as an advocate to prioritize educating the Trump administration on federal Indian law.
“Since this administration began, it has expressed several positions that call into question the federal trust responsibility and the United States’ treaty obligations to provide tribes with healthcare, education, housing, and other social services. It’s not clear whether these statements were due to lack of familiarity with federal Indian law or – and this is the possibility that concerns me most – whether they were done with willful disregard for these well-established principles,” Udall said, in reference to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently expressing views that challenge the unique legal status of Indian tribes under federal law. “While [CMS] has since walked its position back somewhat, it is clear that more education on basic tenets of federal Indian law is desperately needed.”
In addition, Udall secured a commitment from Sweeney that, if confirmed, she would recuse herself from any matter involving the Department of the Interior that could benefit the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), with which she has birthright shares under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and any matters that would benefit ASRC, including oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – in order to avoid any conflicts of interest.
Udall’s opening statement as prepared is below:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this nomination hearing today. And congratulations to you, Ms. Sweeney, on being nominated to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior.
This is an important nomination. The department’s Indian Affairs hallway has been empty for quite some time – lacking the top political leadership that your nomination reflects and that Indian Country deserves.
I’m encouraged the president chose you, Ms. Sweeney — a Native American nominee with business experience and with a deep connection to your tribal community.
I welcome the opportunity today to learn about your priorities as Assistant Secretary, if confirmed.
From my vantage point, the primary purpose of this hearing is to hear how you plan to carry out the department’s mission to make sure the Secretary fulfills the United States’ trust responsibility to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages and maintains the federal-tribal government-to-government relationship.
The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs has many critical responsibilities.
In my own role as vice chairman of this committee and as the elected representative of the 23 tribes in my home state of New Mexico, I have used three guiding principles:
• respect tribal sovereignty;• promote tribal self-determination; and• ensure that meaningful government-to-government consultation happens
I strongly believe that – in word and in deed — anyone confirmed to the position of Assistant Secretary must be guided by these same principles.
The assistant secretary must also have a strong partnership with this committee, and be an effective advocate and ambassador to all of Congress for Indian Country’s priorities.
In my questions today, I will seek to confirm that you are up to the challenge of meeting these responsibilities.
I also hope to get added assurances regarding your ethics agreement and your willingness to take on issues that require balancing Indian Country’ best interests with those of the administration.
So thank you, Ms. Sweeney, for answering the call to serve and I look forward to your testimony today. I hope to work with my colleagues to move your nomination along in a timely manner.