The new leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Larry Echohawk, addressed the Conference of Western Attorneys General in Sun Valley Monday, calling for participants' help to "rewrite some chapters in this nation's history."
EchoHawk, a member of the Pawnee Tribe, said the most fertile ground for change is in improving state and federal government relations with tribes to solve social problems.
"Crimes, drug abuse and gangs know no boundaries," he said, but added, "nothing can happen unless tribes are willing to come to the table."
"As lawyers we are first and foremost problem-solvers," said EchoHawk. "We have the opportunity to solve problems that have been on the table far too long."
In 1990, EchoHawk became the first Native American in U.S. history to be elected state attorney general, for the state of Idaho. In May, the U.S. Senate confirmed him as the 11th assistant secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior.
EchoHawk's responsibilities include protecting tribal assets on 60 million acres of land, and promoting self-determination and education for 1.9 million Native Americans in 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States.
He oversees 10,000 employees and a $2.5 billion budget at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, which administers one of two federal school systems.
Echohawk said he has had many requests from native communities for assistance and likened his new job to "trying to sip water from a fire hose."
"It's scary, but in my heart I know I want to do what is fair and just. I want to not only be a good trustee, but an agent for change."
Echohawk told conference attendees that his decision to leave a comfortable professorship at Brigham Young University to accept the job from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar followed his rereading of Dee Brown's 1970 book "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee." The book details injustices perpetrated by the U.S. government against native Western tribes from 1860-1890.
"Rereading that book reminded me why I attended law school and what I wanted to accomplish for Native Americans," he said.
Echohawk, who was a law professor at BYU, provided his colleagues with a brief history of the BIA. He said a U.S. doctrine dating from the 1880s defined non-native U.S. citizens living around reservations as "the deadliest enemies of Indian people."
Under the General Allotment Act, EchoHawk said 90 million acres of land was taken from native communities between 1887 and 1934.
"The act was used to violate treaties by statutory law," he said.
EchoHawk said the federal government then tried to destroy tribes entirely by de-listing them from federal roles during the 1950s.
Despite this treatment by the government, EchoHawk, a former U.S. Marine, said Native Americans continue to enlist in the U.S. military in larger proportions than any other ethnic group.
"They do this because they love this country and because they are willing to fight for it," he said.
EchoHawk said only 50 of the nation's 562 tribes have been helped economically by casino gambling, and that some reservations have unemployment rates of 80 percent.
"There is pain, agony, unemployment, poverty and many vexing social problems in native communities," he said.
EchoHawk, who is a Mormon, said Native American leaders always begin and end political meetings with prayers.
"They are the most spiritual people I know," he said.
Tony Evans: firstname.lastname@example.org