SALT LAKE CITY — The top official for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs is resigning to accept a full-time leadership position with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ending three years with the department that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says "opened a new chapter" in U.S. relationships with American Indian tribes.
Larry Echo Hawk, the assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, is being appointed to the Quorum of the Seventy, the Mormon Church's third-highest governing body. The announcement from the church came Saturday during its semi-annual general conference in Salt Lake City.
President Barack Obama appointed Echo Hawk, 63, to oversee the BIA in 2009.
"With Larry Echo Hawk's leadership, we have opened a new chapter in our nation to nation relationships with American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, accelerated the restoration of tribal homelands, improved safety in tribal communities, resolved century-old water disputes, invested in education, and reached many more milestones that are helping Indian nations pursue the future of their choosing," Salazar said in a statement.
During Echo Hawk's tenure, the Interior Department settled a $3.4 billion class-action lawsuit with Native American landowners over mismanaged royalties. The settlement reached in late 2009 is under appeal.
Salazar said he would work with Echo Hawk to ensure a smooth transition within the BIA. It was not clear who would be appointed to oversee the BIA after Echo Hawk's departure.
Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation, was elected Idaho attorney general in 1990, the first Native American to be elected to the position in any state. He ran unsuccessfully in 1994 for Idaho governor as a Democrat.
He was a Brigham Young University law professor for 14 years before leading the BIA.
After his appointment, Echo Hawk said in a speech in Salt Lake City in 2009 that he wrestled with the decision to accept a position that would make him a "face" for a federal government that has had a sordid history of mistreating Indians. He finally reconciled his hesitation by vowing to be an "agent for change" instead of a mere caretaker.
"How do you reverse 200 years of struggles?" he said then. "It's not going to be easy."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company