After the Senate formally confirmed Brigham Young University law professor Larry EchoHawk to head the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, he vowed Wednesday to do all in his power to combat the poverty, poor schools and crime that are too common in Indian country.
"It's the opportunity to impact the lives of nearly 2 million American Indians and Alaska natives," he told the Deseret News. "Many of these people live in poverty. There are communities of American Indians that have nearly 80 percent unemployment. I'm going to do whatever I can to improve their quality of life."
The Senate confirmed EchoHawk late Tuesday on a voice vote. EchoHawk said that shortly afterward, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called him to report the news — and to begin planning when EchoHawk may move to Washington and be sworn-in. No date has been set for that yet.
Salazar on Wednesday extolled EchoHawk, 60, a Pawnee who is the former Idaho attorney general.
"He is a dedicated public servant with excellent leadership abilities and legal expertise and legislative experience to help us carry out President Obama's commitment to build strong Indian economies and safer Indian communities."Salazar said.
"Together, we will work cooperatively with the federally recognized tribes to empower American Indian and Alaska Native people, restore the integrity of the government-to-government relationship and fulfill the United States' trust responsibilities."
EchoHawk told the Deseret News, "I identified education, economic development and law enforcement as the three areas that I would focus on" as the new assistant secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs.
"This will require me to reach out and communicate with tribal leaders across the country. There are 562 tribes, and I should make sure that I understand what their concerns and priorities are before I set an aggressive agenda," he said.
"So I want to listen to what they have to say and consult with them before I begin to work. One of the first things I will do is convene a meeting with tribal leaders to open those lines of communication," EchoHawk said.
He added that it will be difficult to leave BYU.
"I have a perfect life. Not only am I a law professor, but I also have the assignment to oversee men and women's athletics at BYU (as a legal adviser, where he once played on the football team). And it's not easy for me to leave behind a job that I love."
But when he said he thinks of the poverty and other challenges in Indian country, "This is something that I just could not say no to."
As the assistant secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs, EchoHawk will develop the Interior Department's policy on Indian-related issues, and make budget recommendations affecting Indian education, public safety, social health and welfare, economic development and other issues.
He also oversees agencies that carry out those functions, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, the Office of Indian Gaming, the Office of Self-Governance, the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development and other Interior offices relating to Indian tribes and issues.
Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said last week that the office of assistant secretary for Indian Affairs has been vacant for four of the past eight years, and he called that "shameful." He said EchoHawk should bring "needed stability" to the post.
The nomination of EchoHawk flew rapidly through Congress once his nomination was made.
Obama announced his nomination on April 10. EchoHawk's confirmation hearing was on May 7. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee endorsed him on May 14.
However, his expected nomination initially was held up for a few months when some tribes worried aloud that he may oppose tribal casinos.
When he was Idaho's attorney general, he angered some tribes after Idaho passed a constitutional amendment to allow a lottery, with a promise that the amendment would not allow other gambling forms. When federal officials said the amendment's loose wording should allow tribal casinos anyway, EchoHawk's office suggested a special legislative session to fix the wording.
During EchoHawk's confirmation hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., offered the only criticism made of EchoHawk by saying he was too vague on such questions as whether tribes should be allowed to operate casinos off their reservations and whether Indian gaming is sufficiently regulated.
EchoHawk said Wednesday, "The confirmation process is very long and a little frustrating, because it takes so much time. So I'm glad that's over, and I just look forward to doing the work."
EchoHawk received a bachelor's degree from BYU, and his law degree from the University of Utah.
He told BYU students in a speech a few years ago that his unique last name is the English translation of the name given to his great-grandfather.
"Among the Pawnee, the hawk is a symbol of a warrior. My great-grandfather was known for his bravery, but he was also known as a quiet man who did not speak of his own deeds. As a member of his tribe spoke of his good deeds, it was like an echo from one side of the village to the other. Thus he was named Echo Hawk," he said.