Every year the J. Reuben Clark Law Society holds a fireside at the LDS Conference Center in late January. The event is broadcast around the world via the church’s satellite system, and also streamed live over the Internet.
At these annual firesides, the law society bestows its Distinguished Service Award upon a high-profile figure from legal and/or LDS circles. Recent recipients include President James E. Faust, formerly of the LDS Church's First Presidency; President Boyd K. Packer, of the Quorum of the Twelve; and retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The honoree, in turn, delivers a prepared speech to the law society.
On Jan. 25, Elder Larry Echo Hawk accepted the 2013 Distinguished Service Award. Elder Echo Hawk, now a general authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, previously served as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2009-12.
Throughout his uniquely American success story, Elder Echo Hawk, a convert to the LDS faith as a teenager, has simultaneously navigated social circles that are so disparate from one another as to seem mutually exclusive.
“I’ve had a very interesting life,” Elder Echo Hawk told the Deseret News recently. “I’ve done a variety of different things, and it’s always been a work in progress.”
As a hard-hitting safety for BYU's football team from 1966-69, he was in the minority as an American Indian who played Division I college football. By being elected attorney general of Idaho in 1990, he became the first American Indian to ever win a state office via statewide election. After narrowly losing the Idaho gubernatorial election in 1994, Elder Echo Hawk migrated to Provo and taught 14 years at BYU's law school — during which time he was the only faculty member who had transitioned straight from elected office to academia.
"I’ve had a lot of things come to me that I never thought would happen," he said. "It’s beyond my wildest dreams as a convert to the church in my teenage years to think that I would ever be called to serve as a general authority. ... It was beyond my wildest dreams to ever think I’d go to college, and it was beyond my wildest dreams to think I’d be a college football player. And it was certainly beyond my wildest dreams to ever think I’d hold a statewide elective office.”
H. Reese Hansen, the retired dean of BYU’s law school, is the man who persuaded Elder Echo Hawk to try teaching law students after his term as Idaho attorney general ended in early 1995. Hansen — who first met Echo Hawk when they both attended the University of Utah’s law school during the early 1970s — recently spoke to the Deseret News about his former classmate’s character.
“I think that you really can’t describe Larry Echo Hawk with only words,” Hansen said. “I think you have to meet him, shake his hand, look into his eye, hear him talk (and) the tone of his voice and the sincerity of what he says — and you’ll know it’s all true. He is absolutely authentic.”
At the Jan. 25 fireside, Elder Echo Hawk titled his remarks “Instruments in His Hands: Doing this Great and Marvelous Work.” He spoke at length about his three years as the federal administrator responsible for the Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education. The hiring process to become assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs started with an unexpected phone call from the President Barack Obama transition team on Jan. 13, 2009.
“The caller simply said, ‘We have an airline ticket for you, and we want to talk to you in Washington, D.C.,’ ” Elder Echo Hawk recalled. “As I had not had anything to do with Barack Obama’s campaign, and I had not applied for any jobs, this was a complete surprise to me.”
The ensuing in-person interview revealed nothing about the position for which he was being considered. Only after Elder Echo Hawk returned to his hotel that night did Ken Salazar, the nominee for Secretary of the Interior, phone him with the news he was being offered the position of assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs. After considering the offer for several days, Elder Echo Hawk accepted, and the Senate unanimously confirmed his nomination on May 19, 2009.
“It was the most difficult job I ever had,” he told the Deseret News. “But it was the most satisfying job that I’ve had because we had the ability to be able to actually do things that were impacting the lives of people. We have an impressive record of accomplishment in the years that I served — dealing with the settlement of very significant claims against the United States by tribes and individual Indians, restoration of tribal lands, settlement of very significant water rights disputes that have been going on for decades, and building or renovating over 25 schools.”
Elder Echo Hawk originally planned to remain with the Department of the Interior through the end of President Obama’s first term. But in early February 2012, he was called to serve in the First Quorum of the Seventy. The new calling wouldn’t be sustained at general conference until March 31, and he would stay on at his government post until May.
The Echo Hawks moved back to the house in Orem that they left behind in 2009 but never sold. And due to geographic proximity they now see their six children and 24 grandchildren much more often than they did while living in northern Virginia for three years.
Elder Echo Hawk emphasized the importance of staying spiritually centered amidst professional flux during his Jan. 25 remarks to the J. Reuben Clark Law Society.
“We all need to have a divinely inspired blueprint so that we can use our talents and education to fulfill the Lord’s purposes,” he said. “We have the power of his word within us. We have also been blessed to have the power of a legal education. Spiritual power, coupled with the power of legal education, prepares us to accomplish the Lord’s purposes.”
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at [email protected] or 801-236-6051.