BIA meets with Oklahoma tribal leaders
Assistant Secretary of the Department of Interior Larry Echo Hawk, left, speaks to tribal leaders during a reception held in his honor on March 14 at the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel Tulsa in Catoosa, Okla. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
CATOOSA, Okla. – Twenty-three tribal leaders from eastern Oklahoma met with Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary of the Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs head, March 14-15 in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tulsa.
Echo Hawk came to Oklahoma at the invitation of tribes to discuss with them common issues and concerns. During two days of meetings, he met with tribal leaders individually.
Principal Chief Bill John Baker said the issue all of the tribes agreed was most paramount was getting a BIA area director for the bureau’s area Muskogee office.
“We’ve been without an area director for over two years, and it’s cost about $850,000 that should be going to technical assistance that should be taking care of our needs and our problems,” Baker said. “We just feel like we deserve a full-time decision maker at the local level, as it’s designed, for us to be serviced.”
He said internal problems at the BIA forced the last area director, Jeanette Hanna, to be reassigned to Washington, D.C. This has forced the BIA to use acting area directors to attempt to assist tribes, and as is the case with someone in an acting role, Baker said, they can only do so much.
“They really don’t have the full faith and credit to give you direct answers, and it makes it dysfunctional and causes us to go through two or three levels instead of having an area director that has a certain amount of authority,” he said.
Baker said Echo Hawk has put naming a new area director on the “front burner.”
During a March 14 reception in his honor, Echo Hawk said during his three years of service as DOI assistant secretary, he has tried hard to meet with tribes in their homelands and not just in Washington.
“It’s an honor for me to be here in the Cherokee Nation. My favorite part of my job is meeting with people, the tribes. This is kind of typical day for me meeting with Indian tribes, meeting nation to nation. I represent the United States in communicating with the 566 tribes that are spread across Indian Country,” Echo Hawk said.
He said he hopes by meeting tribes in eastern Oklahoma they work together on common issues.
“The Obama administration has been working for the last three years plus to address some major issues for Indian Country. We’re not going to be able to solve every single issue that’s brought to us, but I think we’ve got a pretty strong record in the first three years,” he said. “It’s wonderful to have a president that cares. It’s wonderful to have a secretary of Interior that cares, and it’s wonderful to have career employees in the Bureau of Indian Affair and the Bureau of Indian Education…that care really care about the work that they do.”
During the National Congress of American Indians’ winter session in early March in Washington, leaders of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations met to discuss resurrecting the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes.
The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes was established to promote positive relationships among five of Oklahoma’s largest tribes while acknowledging the need for a united front from tribal leaders on various issues.
The council’s first major task was convincing Echo Hawk to travel to Oklahoma to meet with tribes in eastern Oklahoma, which he immediately agreed to do.
Baker said it was more economical for Echo Hawk and two staff members to come to Oklahoma to meet with 23 tribal leaders than to have the leaders fly to Washington.
“Traveling to D.C. is expensive. Getting two or three people to come this way instead of 40 to 60 people go that way – it just really made sense,” he said.