Rural Alaska

Alaska Native leaders say Tara Sweeney is well suited for Trump’s top Indian affairs job

She grew up in rural Alaska and graduated from Cornell University. She co-chaired the Alaska Federation of Natives and led the international Arctic Economic Council. She was Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics, Miss Top of the World and Miss National Congress of American Indians.

Now Tara Sweeney, 44 and an executive vice president of Arctic Slope Regional Corp., is being nominated by President Donald Trump to the nation's top post with oversight over Native American matters. If the U.S. Senate confirms his pick, she'll be the first Alaska Native and the second woman to hold the position of assistant secretary of Interior for Indian affairs.

The late Morris Thompson, an Athabascan who went on to lead Doyon Ltd., held an earlier version of the position, commissioner of Indian affairs.

Sweeney is an Inupiaq who grew up in various rural communities: Noorvik, Wainwright, Bethel, Unalakleet and mainly Barrow, now Utqiaġvik. She graduated from Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations in 1998. She has spent much of her professional career with Arctic Slope Regional Corp., Alaska's biggest locally owned and run company.

The White House announced the pick Monday. The reaction on Tuesday bordered on ecstatic.

"What pops right into my head is why wouldn't she be nominated?" said Clare Swan, a Kenaitze tribal elder, pausing after her keynote address Tuesday at the First Alaskans Institute's Elders and Youth Conference. "Because she knows Alaska, for one thing."

In her speech, Swan told the young leaders they would always be breaking trail. In the Dena'ina language, that's susten, she said.


And Sweeney is the kind of person who breaks trail, said Swan and others.

"She sees with her heart," Swan said.

It was Sweeney and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. who backed Cook Inlet Tribal Council's effort to create a Native-themed video adventure game. The result, "Never Alone," was launched in 2014 based on Inupiaq folklore and narrated entirely in Inupiaq. It's been a hit.

"It was ASRC and Tara who stood with us and made an investment," said Gloria O'Neill, president and chief executive of Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a social services agency.

Sweeney is tough and smart with the political savvy and instincts to negotiate bureaucracy, said O'Neill, who has long worked with Sweeney on boards and projects. The women are friends.

"Tara has that good sense of timing," O'Neill said. "She's worked in D.C. for a number of years so she has the smarts and skills to maneuver through and get things done."

The assistant secretary oversees the bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education, which provide services directly or through grants and contracts to almost 2 million Native American people and 567 tribes, including 229 in Alaska. Areas of responsibility include tribal courts, Indian child welfare, schools, roads, and management of land and money held in trust by the federal government for tribes and Native individuals.

"Congratulations to her," said Willie Hensley, a longtime Alaska Native leader who chairs the board of First Alaskans Institute. "It's going to be a real challenging job. You have tribes scattered all over the country and Alaska, and in challenging economic times."

Trump, as a businessman, battled with Lower 48 tribes over casinos. His relationship with tribes as president is evolving.

Sweeney will be in a good position to help the Trump administration understand the Native power structure, Hensley said.

"A lot of people don't understand Alaska because it is confusing," Hensley said. "We have tribes. We have (Alaska Native) corporations." And the Native-run corporations have land and money, while tribes here more often are struggling with few resources.

The announcement about Sweeney came on the eve of the Alaska Federation of Natives' annual convention in Anchorage, the biggest representative gathering of Native people.

Twenty-four years ago, a predecessor in the assistant secretary's role, Ada Deer, drew cheers at the AFN convention when she announced that the Clinton administration was officially recognizing more than 220 Native entities in Alaska as having nearly the same powers as Lower 48 tribes.

Sweeney will be good not just for Alaska, but for the country, said state Sen. Donny Olson, a Democrat from Golovin, who as a boy went to a Bureau of Indian Affairs school in his home village.

"For someone like the president who sometimes loses sight of what is going on because he is so involved with tweeting to have finally appointed someone who will do an excellent job for Alaska" is welcome, said Olson, who fended off a political challenge from Sweeney back in 2004 when she ran as a nonpartisan candidate. She's now again a registered Republican.

Another longtime Native leader, Georgianna Lincoln, is on the AFN board as well as the board of Doyon Ltd. Sweeney was an excellent AFN co-chair, Lincoln said.

"She was very organized. She read her information beforehand," Lincoln said. "She didn't take over the meetings but she helped others to understand maybe the language we were discussing, what the implications were for a piece of legislation and always with such a kind heart."


If Sweeney is confirmed, she will be someone for other Alaska Native women — and for other Alaskans — to model themselves on, said Lincoln, who understands the power of that as the first and only Alaska Native woman to serve in the state Senate.

"She can be my role model," Lincoln said.

Sweeney's mother was the late state Rep. Eileen MacLean, a Democrat who represented what was then Barrow.

Her husband is Kevin Sweeney, a former longtime aide to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski who recently stepped down. The couple, who live in Anchorage, have two children, Caitlin and Ahmaogak.

Efforts to interview Sweeney on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.