Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008
By JODI RAVE of the Missoulian
As President-elect Barack Obama appoints a new team of cabinet members and fills other key federal work posts, he's named six Native people to his transition team - half of them assigned to assist in Interior Department policy, budget and personnel changes.
“We're lucky to have such stellar representatives with people with whom Indian Country has really good relationships,” said Jacqueline Johnson-Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, a nonprofit organization that represents more than 250 tribes.
So far, Mary Smith, Mary McNeil and Yvette Robideaux have been assigned to work on justice, agriculture and health issues, while three current and former attorneys with the Native American Rights Fund - John Echohawk, Keith Harper and Robert Anderson - will advise Obama on changes proposed within the Interior Department.
As advisers to the Interior transition team, the Indian law experts could inspire a significant transformation within the department's Indian trust fund system, an organizational debacle that has been subject to 12 years of litigation during the Cobell vs. Kempthorne suit.
“This is our last big chance to get a lot of things done,” said Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff from Montana's Blackfeet Nation in the class action lawsuit. “It's like a broken record every time we have a hearing. Nothing really happens. Maybe if we get the right people in these positions, we can all work together: the tribes, Congress and the administration.”
The Native American Rights Fund, a tribal justice and legal rights organization based in Boulder, Colo., has helped represent a half-million Native landowners in the Cobell suit. Landowners claim Interior Department agency officials - including the Office of Special Trustee, Bureau of Land Management, Minerals Management Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs - have mismanaged billions of dollars of their income earned from sales of timber, oil and gas, and grazing leases.
Echohawk, NARF's executive director of more than 30 years, also served as a transition adviser for former President Bill Clinton.
Harper was the lead NARF attorney in the Cobell case. He remains the only Native representative assigned to the highest ranks of the Obama transition, where he has been named a “team lead” for the Interior Department. Harper also served as the Native policy adviser during the Obama campaign.
He currently heads up Native affairs for the Washington, D.C., law firm Kilpatrick Stockton. He was named as one of the 50 “Most Influential Minority Lawyers in America” by the 2008 National Law Journal. And he is a lead attorney in the Cobell suit.
Rounding out the Interior advisers to the Obama transition team, Anderson worked 12 years as a senior staff attorney for NARF, where he litigated state, tribal and federal jurisdiction cases, including water, hunting and fishing rights cases.
Transition team updates are being made at www.change.gov.
“President-elect Obama has set a high bar for the transition team to execute the most efficient, organized and transparent transfer of power in American history,” said John Podesta, co-chairman of the presidential transition team, in a news release.
“First, we adopted the strictest ethics guidelines ever applied to any transition team. President-elect Obama pledged to change the way Washington works, and that begins with shifting influence away from special interests and restoring it to the everyday Americans who are passionate about fixing the problems facing our country.”
Job seekers are being encouraged to submit their resumes, and many Native people have already done so.
“The team expands constantly as they look for gaps and bring in other people, said Johnson-Pata. “Every time I look at the list, I see new names on it. We're lucky. We have several Native Americans in a variety of different places.”