WASHINGTON – Kevin Washburn, a former University of New Mexico Law School dean who has led the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs for the past three years, announced Thursday that he will leave government and return to the UNM law school in January.
Washburn, whose official title was assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior, told the Journal he misses New Mexico and wants to spend more time with his wife and two young sons, who have already moved to the state. He has accepted a teaching position at the Law School. Washburn noted that his government tenure, from September 2012 until the end of this year, is the longest of any BIA director since Ada Deer, who served from 1993 to 1997. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Larry Roberts will lead Indian Affairs for the rest of the Obama administration.
“There is no good time to leave, because there is always so much more to accomplish, but we have accomplished an awful lot, so I don’t feel bashful about leaving,” Washburn told the Journal .
As the U.S. Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs, Washburn oversees a $2.5 billion budget and 8,000 employees. He’s also had the ear of President Barack Obama on issues ranging from tribal self-governance to Native American land disputes and Indian gambling. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell described the Oklahoma native, who is one-quarter Chickasaw, as “a tireless change agent for Indian Country.”
“He is a thoughtful leader who provided a steady hand to modernize Indian Affairs to better serve tribes, which will be felt by generations to come in tribal communities across the country,” Jewell said.
Washburn called his appointment as the top-ranking Indian Affairs official in the nation the “highest privilege of my life” and said he worked especially to improve opportunities for economic development on tribal land.
“We have dramatically tried to expand tribal sovereignty around economic development,” Washburn said, citing legislation sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and approved by Congress that gave tribes much greater control over the leasing of tribal lands. “We’ve improved our own leasing regulations … and we’ve dramatically improved our right-of-way regulations, which has been a bit of a hot topic in northern New Mexico. We’ve tried to expand tribal authority over those issues on their own lands.”
He also said BIA has tried to resolve long-standing disputes between tribes and the federal government.
“We’ve resolved 83 or 84 tribal trust litigation cases, claims for breach of trust over natural resources against the federal government,” he said. “We’re getting past the litigation so we can plan for more positive things.”
Washburn cited his office’s implementation of the Cobell Settlement, which has provided $1.9 billion to purchase fractional interests in trust or restricted land from willing sellers at fair market value, as another accomplishment.
“We’ve spent more than $700 million to restore more than 1.5 million acres of fractionated land to tribes,” he said.
But Washburn said he’s been “frustrated” by a push from conservative tea party members in Congress to reduce tribal autonomy.
“We’ve seen the tea party wing of Congress starting to try to take away executive power to take action in favor of tribes, such as lands-into-trust and tribal acknowledgement,” he said. “They’ve identified a constitutional position that it should be only Congress and not the executive branch that does good things for tribes. And frankly, if we left it up to Congress we might not get good things for tribes.”
As he considered his departure, Washburn said he’s looking forward to his return to New Mexico.
“I miss the Sandias,” he said. “I really miss my community and my home.”