January 24, 2017

Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs: ‘I don’t want to take sides’

Kevin Washburn says he didn’t take the job to be a referee

NORMAN, Okla. – For Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, the last six months have been a whirlwind reality check.

“We have 566 federally-recognized tribes,” he said. “When I came in, I thought each one would only have one problem that they’d bring to my office. Instead each one has at least three or four.

“It’s a hard job. I’ve basically taken on almost all of the United States’ problems over the last 200 years.”

Sworn in on Oct. 12, 2012, Washburn’s appearance at the University of Oklahoma Law School’s annual American Indian Law Symposium marked his first public speaking engagement since taking office. A citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and the former dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law, he is an OU graduate.

Speaking to about 300 people at the OU College of Law, Washburn talked about how his childhood experiences at Carl Albert Indian Hospital shaped his views on tribal jurisdiction.

Originally opened as an Indian Health Services-operated facility, the Ada, Okla., hospital is now operated by the Chickasaw Nation. As one of three children, his single mother would bring all three children with her if one needed to be seen. The trips often turned into all-day affairs thanks to delays and staffing issues at the hospital. However, after the Chickasaw Nation took over operations, he and his family noticed many small improvements across the board.

“Those little things, like a phone call when they’re running behind, made a big difference,” he said. “Those phone calls were a sign of respect that our time, my relatives’ time was also valuable.

“If you put the tools in the hands of tribes, they’ll generally do better than the federal government.

“Even with less money, tribal employees can do more than most federal employees, as they’re more accountable to the local community.”

With the BIA employment numbers down almost 50 percent compared to the Clinton administration, that emphasis on self-governance extends to his office’s role as a mediator between tribes, with the BIA only becoming involved when absolutely necessary.

“I didn’t take this job because I wanted to be a referee,” Washburn said. “Watching two tribes fight is like watching my kids fight. I don’t want to take sides. I want them to work it out on their own.”

Among those proverbial children fighting are the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, who have been facing a constitutional crisis for more than two years with two separate governments claiming to be the legitimate authority. The fight has led a Custer County, Okla., judge to freeze the tribes’ bank accounts until a clear, undisputed leader is named. Both governments have written requests on file for the Department of Interior to conduct the tribes’ election scheduled for later this year.

Several members of one of the two governments, including its leader, Leslie Wandrie-Harjo, attended the symposium to draw attention to their tribes’ situation and attempt to get confirmation that the Department of Interior will step in and help diffuse the situation. However, Washburn would not commit to federal involvement in Concho, Okla., and only promised that his office would at least review the situation.           

“The No. 1 place for tribes to solve their problems is at home,” he said. “It doesn’t help for me to get involved in a tribe’s internal war.

“This is one of the harder issues, but looking to the federal government for a rescue is simply not consistent with self-government. I grew up in an era when the BIA was known for bossing Indians around. I’m not interested in bossing other Indians around.”

Washburn also said his office would not be intervening in the dispute between the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, headquartered in Atmore, Ala., over a casino expansion project that could potentially desecrate Hickory Ground, a pre-removal burial ground, capitol and sacred site.

Despite the excavation of 57 sets of human remains, Poarch Band officials maintain that the $246 million casino expansion project does not violate any potentially applicable federal laws, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The land, which has been held in trust since 1984, is part of the Alabama tribe’s reservation and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

At a November emergency meeting of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation National Council, Principal Chief George Tiger said Washburn had committed to trying to facilitate a meeting between the two tribes in early 2013. However, with a federal lawsuit now pending in the Middle District of Alabama, the assistant secretary said that offer is now off of the table.

“It’s now in the court’s hands,” he said. “It is completely out of my hands. I’ll be watching the litigation like everyone else at this point.”

Opening arguments have not been scheduled yet in the civil suit. A video from the Feb. 15 arrest of four protestors at the site was released Wednesday via Vimeo in an effort to refute the Alabama tribe’s claims that one of the protestors, Wayland Gray, made terrorist threats against the casino and its management.

Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn addresses attendees of the University of Oklahoma’s American Indian Law Symposium March 7 in Norman.