WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate confirmed Alaska Native leader Tara Sweeney as assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Interior Department in a unanimous vote Thursday.
Sweeney is the first Alaska Native woman in a high-ranking Senate-confirmed position with the federal government. She comes to the Interior Department from the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), with enthusiastic backing from Alaska's three-person congressional delegation.
Sweeney was executive vice president of external affairs at ASRC and previously co-chaired the Alaska Federation of Natives, led the international Arctic Economic Council, was Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics, Miss Top of the World and Miss National Congress of American Indians. Her new position oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.
The White House announced Sweeney's nomination to great excitement at the Alaska Federation of Natives' annual convention in October. But it took months for her nomination to formally move from the White House to the Senate because of confusion over what to do about her status as a shareholder in ASRC.
The Office of Government Ethics usually requires people to divest themselves of financial conflicts of interest before clearing them for high-ranking federal positions. But Sweeney can't sell her Native corporation shares; they are a birthright. And Alaska's senators argued that she should not have to give up her shares to work for the federal government that bestowed them to her. The issue appeared to be without precedent.
In the end, the Office of Government Ethics and Sweeney came to an agreement that she would recuse herself from issues related to the financial stake of ASRC, including proposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"This has been a long and exhaustive process, but we always knew Tara was up for the challenge," said Rex A. Rock Sr., ASRC president. "We are all so proud of her, and look forward to her tenacity and fearless leadership while serving those in Indian Country."
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued his congratulations to Sweeney. "Her lifelong active engagement in Native American policy development and her outreach, advocacy, and organization skills are the combination we need to carry out the President's reform initiative for Indian Country," Zinke said in a written statement.
"As a proud Inupiaq, (Sweeney) has lived first-hand the challenges that many in Indian Country face," Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement.
Murkowski previously pressed Sweeney to shape up an agency that has been plagued with accusations of sexual harassment and intimidation. "I'm proud to see her confirmed, and now it is time for her to start kicking down doors and get to work."
"I am absolutely certain that there is no one who will work harder for the rights, for the economic empowerment, and for the culture of America's First Peoples than Tara Sweeney. It's a great day for Alaska and a great day for our country," said Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan.
Alaska Rep. Don Young called Sweeney a "natural leader" and "an influential voice for American Indians and Alaska Natives."
"As the first Alaska Native to hold this position, she is an exceptional representation of the Last Frontier," Young said.
In a statement released by the congressional delegation, Sweeney said she hoped to "develop strong relationships with Tribes, Alaska Native corporations, and Native Hawaiian Organizations to work on innovative solutions for lifting up our communities. I am motivated to work with Indian Country to find efficiencies inside the Bureau of Indian Affairs, improve service delivery and culturally relevant curriculum in the Bureau of Indian Education, and create a more effective voice for Tribes throughout the Federal Government."