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Alaska nominee pressed to straighten up federal agency in turmoil

WASHINGTON — Senators suggested a smooth path to confirmation to Alaska Native leader Tara Sweeney at a hearing Wednesday regarding her nomination for assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior.

Sweeney is the first Alaska Native woman to be nominated to a position that requires Senate confirmation.

There was no controversy over Sweeney's nomination from Democrats or Republicans. Lawmakers roundly acknowledged that she is heading into a position where she will be charged with heading federal agencies that are in turmoil.

Bryan Rice, the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a position that would be under her purview, resigned in recent weeks after only six months on the job. Reports said he left amid claims of intimidating behavior.

Sweeney told lawmakers that she was not timid, and was prepared to promote zero tolerance for sexual harassment and promote a safe work environment for federal employees.

Currently, Sweeney is the executive vice president of external affairs at the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., pointed to a bevy of temporary regional directors and a newly appointed Navajo director with, he said, no ties to the tribe, and pushed her to "stabilize" the department.

"It is really disconcerting to see the news reports" of ongoing investigations into alleged "widespread harassment problems within the Bureau of Indian Affairs," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "You are walking into an agency that has lacked the leadership, that has lacked the discipline that you have just committed to bring."

Sweeney told the lawmakers that she planned to bring the same "disciplined approach" she has used in private industry, and plans to sit down with staff to ensure that "employees with the department are staying true to the mission" of self determination, trust responsibility and to "ensure that we have a strong workforce."

The Alaskan also told the committee that she didn't think her Alaska Native-centric experience would be a problem for leading American Indians nationally. Remove the geography, and the social issues facing tribes are the same, she said. That includes schooling, addiction problems and issues of domestic abuse, she said. In the past, work with Indian leaders nationally has shown her that "we are more alike than we are dissimilar," Sweeney said.

In her opening statement to the committee, Sweeney compared the social and infrastructure challenges faced by Native Alaskans in the Arctic to the "realities faced throughout the rest of Indian Country."

"To address these needs, we accessed the resources of bond markets, local taxing authority, and business investments to build a city water and sewer system, a system that most Americans take for granted." Sweeney said that the same approaches are unlikely to work across all parts of Indian country.

Sweeney's confirmation hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee came after months of wrangling for her supporters in Alaska's congressional delegation, who said the White House struggled to clear her nomination because she is a a shareholder in an Alaska Native corporation, and the job includes oversight of Native issues.

Nominees are often asked to either dissolve or put into a blind trust assets that involve their area of government control. That is not an option for a shareholder in an Alaska Native corporation.

The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act created Alaska's system of 12 regional Native corporations and more than 200 village corporations, which stand in contrast to reservations in the Lower 48. Many of the corporations manage vast holdings, companies that hold government contracts and manage resource development on Native people's lands. There are more than 100,000 ANCSA Native shareholders, and those shareholders receive dividend payments each year. The amount is not publicly available. The shares cannot be sold or traded, but they can be passed to family members. According to ASRC, the organization paid out $915 million to shareholders between 1978 and 2016.

At Wednesday's hearing, Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., noted that ASRC is a $2.6 billion corporation with 12,000 employees and active work in six major business sectors.

Ultimately, Sweeney agreed to a federal ethics pledge that requires she recuse herself from any decisions affecting ASRC, including those involving drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"I would have done that regardless of the (ethics) pledge, because it's the right thing to do," Sweeney said at the hearing.

Sweeney has co-chaired the Alaska Federation of Natives, led the international Arctic Economic Council, and was Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics, Miss Top of the World and Miss National Congress of American Indians.

"I am both a product and a witness to the work of Native leaders to address the challenges that each of our communities face — including social services to protect our most vulnerable, the perpetuation of our languages and cultural practices, investments in education, housing and other infrastructure, and capacity building to develop economic opportunities at home and across the country," Sweeney said in her opening statement to the committee.

Sweeney said she plans to spend the first 180 days of her tenure "listening to tribal leaders and the Congressional Committees of jurisdiction to hear the top priorities and establish a clear and comprehensive Action Plan."

"Indian country is not a homogeneous community. There are some stark and subtle differences that make each tribe unique. I have great familiarity with energy development, education, housing, telecommunications, and business development issues, particularly within the context of rural and geographical isolation; however, others will be new to me," she said.

Many Alaskans heralded the White House announcement in October that the president intended to nominate Sweeney to an assistant secretary position overseeing the bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education. The agencies facilitate services, contracts and grants for 2 million Native Americans in 567 tribes, including 229 in Alaska. The two bureaus manage tribal courts, Indian child welfare, schools, roads, lands and money held in trust by the federal government for tribes and Native people.

Murkowski expressed great pride in Sweeney's nomination at the start of the hearing, to a packed room of Alaskans, including Catherine Stevens, the wife of the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

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