Indian Gaming Today

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ken Salazar Tapped to Head Interior Department

President-elect Obama has tapped Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) to head the Department of the Interior. Salazar is former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and state attorney general. A first-term senator, he is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Most of the attention given to the nomination will focus on Salazar’s moderate record on environmental, lands, and resources issues, which seems destined to please some and displease others. Virtually all commentators agree that Salazar is a reasonable and reasoned lawmaker, one who will be able to redeem Interior’s wild and wooly reputation as a lobbyists’ playground.

President-elect Obama sent an important signal, however, in introducing Salazar. In contrast to President Bush and his two nominees to head Interior (Gale Norton in 2000 and Dirk Kempthorne in 2006), both Obama and Salazar explicitly raised the subject of Indian Country.

This is significant because of the key role Interior plays in the federal government’s interactions with reservations and American Indian people. After all, the Interior Department oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. Too, the Office of Indian Gaming Management is responsible for implementing gaming-related policy assigned to the BIA through IGRA and other federal laws.

Salazar has little experience working with tribes or on issues related to Indian Country. In accepting the nomination, however, he did state that he looks forward to addressing “challenges” facing American Indian communities.

Obama sent an additional, critically important signal in discussing how the federal government should approach tribes. “We need more than just a government-to-government relationship; we need a nation-to-nation relationship,” he said.

This tracks with Obama’s campaign-trail pronouncements affirming tribal sovereignty. If taken literally, it goes further than prior presidential statements recognizing a government-to-government relationship. Nations are cultural and social communities; Obama’s statement seems to recognize the specificity of tribal cultural and social identity.

Still to come are Obama’s choices for a new White House liaison on Indian Affairs (so new that it’s never been done before), a new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, a new Special Trustee for American Indians, and so on. These choices may extend to new members of the National Indian Gaming Commission, as well.

For right now, Ken Salazar is the cabinet appointee to watch.

The Obama Transition Team’s special designee on Indian affairs, Keith Harper, along with Native American Rights Fund Executive Director John Echohawk, will continue to advise Obama and now, Salazar, on positions of importance to Indian Country. We’ll keep you posted.

For more on Salazar's nomination, see the New York Times' coverage or click here.

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