WASHINGTON – Kevin Washburn, a member of the Chickasaw Nation and former University of New Mexico law school dean who is now the nation’s top Indian affairs official, not only understands Native American hardships, he’s lived them.
When he was a child, Washburn’s cash-strapped single mother, who is one-quarter Chickasaw, took him to Indian Health Services clinics for free medical care. When he was a fourth-grader in Oklahoma City, Washburn’s mom fled domestic violence and returned to live near the Chickasaw Nation. And when he enrolled at Yale Law School in 1990, rightfully proud of his acceptance, Washburn says his East Coast professors mocked the accent he brought with him from the Oklahoma reservation.
Today, Washburn, who claims one-eighth Indian lineage, is getting the last laugh.
As the U.S. Interior’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs, he oversees a $2.5 billion budget and about 8,000 employees. Washburn also has the ear of President Barack Obama on issues ranging from tribal self-governance to Native American land disputes and Indian gaming.
In a wide-ranging Journal interview at the Interior Department, Washburn discussed his Indian heritage, the important role New Mexico played in shaping his life and the pressing issues affecting Indian Country.
He acknowledged that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which manages nearly 57 million acres of Indian trust land, has long been a point of derision among Native Americans. But he said the anger is not all deserved and that he’s working to give the tribes more power.
“We ask the BIA to do everything and then complain that it doesn’t do everything well,” Washburn said. “But the thing that has really improved is (tribal) self-governance. It used to be the BIA and Indian Health Services providing direct services to tribes. Now, we contract with the tribal governments to provide the same services. They are much more responsive to Indian people. Their job depends on it.
“My message is, in most of the programs we run, is there is an opportunity for the tribe to take it over?”
Washburn said he traveled to New Mexico on a church ski trip as a teen and fell in love with its deserts and mountains. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma, he attended the Pre-Law Summer Institute for American Indians in Albuquerque.
“I’d crank open the sunroof and roll down the windows and I’d just go drive because New Mexico doesn’t have the humidity we had in Oklahoma,” Washburn said. “It’s just beautiful and laid back, and it’s a little more comfortably diverse.”
After law school, Washburn worked at the Justice Department in Washington, and then took jobs teaching law at the University of Arizona, University of Minnesota and Harvard. He also worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Albuquerque in the late 1990s, then returned to Washington to take a job as general counsel for the National Indian Gaming Commission. But Washburn always had his eye on returning to New Mexico, and when the UNM law school deanship came open in 2009, he was thrilled to land it.
“It’s a very special law school,” Washburn said. “It’s a small law school where you actually have a relationship with your students – that’s not happening at the big factory law schools.”
Washburn said he was particularly proud of staffing decisions he made as dean, as well as establishing a specialty program in oil and gas law. He plans to return when his stint at the U.S. Department of Interior is over.
“I am on leave from the law school, and I’m going to return,” Washburn said with a smile. “I’ll get promoted to professor when I go back.”
One of Washburn’s most pressing tasks at Interior is administering the Cobell Indian trust land lawsuit settlement, which provides almost $2 billion to repurchase land distributed under the Dawes Act and return it to tribal ownership. Washburn called it a “great settlement.”
“It’s been subject to criticism because there are 150 tribes that could potentially benefit from this, and they all want us to visit them first,” Washburn said. “It’s an enormous undertaking. We’ve already gotten 87,000 acres of land into trust … and we’ve been running the program and making offers for seven months. Congress gave us 10 years to do this, and basically everybody would like us to get it done in one year. We could do that, but we would spend a lot more of the money hiring people and a lot less buying property. We’re trying to work through all of the kinks of a $1.9 billion program so it can run successfully for 10 years to be effective. ”
Washburn said the only New Mexico tribe directly affected is the Navajo Nation, where the Interior Department will be spending about $100 million to buy back land. But he said there are many Native Americans living in Albuquerque from tribes outside the state who may have claims.
“There are a lot of heirs in Albuquerque who could be from Pine Ridge (reservation in South Dakota) or anywhere else,” he said. There will be money going into the Albuquerque economy because of this buyback program.”
Another of Washburn’s big tasks is oversight of the renegotiation of Indian gaming compacts, which are subject to Interior Department approval. He said the department has been working with states and tribes to ensure their new agreements will pass federal muster.
“I want negotiators to compacts – states and tribes to be aware of our interests – our needs,” he said. “We’re tasked with reviewing those, and we’re not a rubber stamp. We’ve got real concerns, and one of them is to make sure the states are being fair to tribes. The idea is that Indian gaming is supposed to serve Indian tribal governments. The first role is not to provide revenues to states; it’s to provide revenues for tribes.”