Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney was welcomed back to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention with loud cheers and applause.
Sweeney is Inupiaq and a former co-chair of AFN. She is the first Alaska Native to hold the assistant secretary position, but when she took the stage, she gave honors to the late Morris Thompson of Tanana. In 1973, Thompson became the first Alaska Native to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs, before the assistant secretary position was created. Sweeney says he paved the way.
“So I share this stage with him and his family and his spirit,” she said.
Sweeney provided a progress report on issues of importance to Alaska Natives. She said Interior is working on a new process for how Alaska tribes can apply to put their land in trust. Tribes can acquire Indian Country jurisdiction over lands if the U.S. government agrees to accept them in trust. That allows them to avoid local taxes and impose their own, among other benefits. Sweeney said consultations on a new process are underway. The comment period ends in December.
Sweeney also called for continued vigilance to fight drug use in Alaska Native communities.
“Now, I’m fully aware that BIA does not provide law enforcement in Alaska,” she said. “But I am committed to finding new ways for the BIA to be engaged in protecting our Alaska Native villages.”
And she spoke about the Indian Child Welfare Act. That’s a 1978 law aimed at ending the removal of Native American children from their communities. A federal judge in Texas recently concluded the law is unconstitutional. Sweeney assured the convention the government will fight that decision.
“The Department of Interior strongly opposes any diminishment of ICWA’s protection for Indian children, families and tribes,” she said.
The Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, Joe Balash, also gave an address. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke taped a video that was played to the convention.