Native American Nations Divided Over Possible Obama Interior Department Candidates

December 10, 2008

Discussion and debate around who the Obama Administration should appoint to lead the Department of the Interior (DOI) reveals divisions among the tribal nations sharing land with the United States. Tribal nations and tribal leaders are divided among 3 candidates rumored to be under discussion by the Obama transition team to lead the DOI, which manages relationships with and programs targeting the country’s Native American nations: Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Congressman Mike Thomspson (D-CA) and the most recent entry, museum director and former Clinton Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Kevin Gover, who is also a member of the Pawnee Nation.

While recent rumors of a possible Gover DOI appointment have created a buzz in certain sectors of the Native American community, these rumors have also exposed deep rooted divisions among and conflict between tribal nations-and between the tribal nations and the U.S. government. The Karuk Tribe of northern California has come out strongly in support of Thompson and Grijalva has the support of more than 7 tribes, including Tohono O’odham nation, the Hopis and the Navajo nation, the country’s largest tribe with over 300,000 members. A possible Gover candidacy will likely bring him considerable Native American support – and at least some Native American opposition.

A judge in a class-action lawsuit filed by a group of Native Americans against the DOI filed during the Clinton Administration, found Gover in civil contempt of court for failing to produce documents and for deceiving the court about the DOI and Bureau of Indian Affairs management of Indian trusts (the judge was later removed from the case.) The lawsuit alleged that the Bureau of Indian Affairs lost millions of dollars owed to hundreds of thousands of American Indians as part of treaty obligations assumed by the United States . The 1996 case involving Gover, Cobell v Kempthorne, has never been settled, but Elouise Cobell, a member of Montana’s Blackfeet tribe and the lead plaintiff in the suit, still opposed Gover’s appointment as head of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian for his role in what she considers the mismanagement of the trusts.

During a video speech delivered in October to a national gathering of tribal nations and their leaders, President-elect Obama promised to “end nearly a century of mismanagement of Indian Trusts” and “to settle unresolved cases” between the U.S. government and Indian nations. To watch the full video, just click below:

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