Native Village Youth and Education News
November, 2009  Volume 3

NCAI rewards Larry EchoHawk with standing ovation
By Gale Courey Toensing
Condensed by Native Village

California: The National Congress of American Indians held its annual conference last month in Palm Springs.  The assembly honored Larry EchoHawk of the Pawnee Nation with a standing ovation for an emotional  speech with repeated promises to stand up for Indian country.

EchoHawk is Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs -- the top appointed official for Indian affairs in the Obama administration. He has spent much of the last six months traveling to dozens of American Indian and Alaska Native communities. 

EchoHawk described his visits and shared his vision for fulfilling his role

“I’ve been across Indian country since I haven’t worked in the federal government or been on the front battle line as you have. For 14 years, I’ve been a law professor so I needed to reconnect. All of this has been a learning process for me, that’s why I did it,” he said. His experiences “will help to shape how I see things and what I will try to do – the priorities – as assistant secretary.”

His experiences resulted in strong commitments to improving Indian education, public safety and law enforcement, and economic development.

Each area EchoHawk visited offered insights and lessons around the themes of federal trust responsibility, public safety and law enforcement, education, economic development, treaty rights and the federal trust responsibility, sovereignty and cultural preservation.

The Great Plains, for example, forced him to think about safety. “I hate to even say the word suicide, but we have to do more to protect our children, our young people,” EchoHawk said.

A visit to an Alaska village made him realize “how the past negligence of the federal trust responsibility has been detrimental to Native people.”

   In Alaska, EchoHawk walked along a deeply rutted mud road to visit a tribal elder. Outside the elder’s home was a bucket of raw sewerage. “And once in awhile, a four wheeler comes by and picks it up and what do they do? They head down the road with the ruts and of course it’s going to spill out and who plays in the road? I need to see things like that. I need to see not just your successes, but your challenges and that will give me the energy and the commitment to try to do my job,” EchoHawk said, his voice cracking with emotion.

But EchoHawk also saw success, especially when visiting tribal nations with thriving gaming operations.  Once criticized for an anti-gaming stance, EchoHawk learned how gaming revenues can build tribal nations and provide services to citizens.

“I get it now, I get it,” EchoHawk told the assembly.

EchoHawk also praised Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar as “one who looks out for Indian country.”
He told a story about accompanying Salazar to Utah during the arrest of individuals who allegedly sold, purchased, and exchanged sacred artifacts, including some remains. A law enforcement officer showed him a  photographs of the objects to be used as evidence.

“I felt like I should not be looking at those objects. Other people view them as evidence, but those objects came from burial sites and undoubtedly in my mind from religious spiritual leaders of our nations from the past. Maybe – maybe – people will start to understand what that is all about,” EchoHawk said.

He also related a story about his visit to a longhouse of the Haundenosaunee Confederacy.

“And they spoke their Native language and began the meeting as they begin all their meetings – with prayer and communication and talk about their perspective of life and after they spoke in their Native language they translated it into English and it was beautiful. It’s what I think all people across the face of the globe need to hear.”

EchoHawk said the Interior Department was reviewing a Bush-era “guidance memorandum” that makes it almost impossible for tribes to acquire off-reservation land for gaming. He said the Bush administration had “slammed the brakes on future off-reservation gaming. We will not do that.”

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