Alaskan Tara MacLean Sweeney faced no resistance at a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing today on her nomination to be assistant Interior secretary for Indian Affairs.
Sweeney is an executive vice president at Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. She would be the first Alaska Native woman to hold the federal position, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and helps manage federal relations with Native American tribes.
Sweeney brought her family and lots of Arctic Slope leaders to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing.
“You have a room full of Inupiat Eskimos,” Sweeney said at the start of her address to the senators. “And so I appreciate the staff keeping this room nice and cool, because it is very warm for the rest of us.”
Outside, the temperature was approaching 80 degrees.
“I can tell you, this Eskimo is melting,” Sweeney said.
One of Sweeney’s guests was Arctic Slope founding director Oliver Leavitt, who inspired Sweeney’s career choice when she was 12.
She remembers Leavitt came to her school in Barrow to talk about the opportunities of the new Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the law that created ASRC and the other Alaska Native regional corporations.
“As he left the building,” Sweeney said, “I looked over to my friends, including his son, and said, ‘I want to work there. I want to work for him. I want to do what he is doing for our people.’”
Several senators, including Lisa Murkowski, told Sweeney they want her to be tough, to take on problems at the BIA and make demands within the administration to help ease troubles afflicting many indigenous communities, like the high rates of domestic violence, substance abuse and unemployment.
“We need you busting down doors and saying ‘we need to talk,’” Murkowski said.
President Donald Trump picked Sweeney for the job in October, but the Office of Government Ethics held up the process out of concern over her shares in Alaska Native corporations, including Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.
Sweeney says the ethics pledge she signed commits her to stay out of all matters involving the regional corporation.
Democratic Sen. Tom Udall pressed her further:
“Will you recuse yourself from any matter that may benefit ASRC, including oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?” Udall asked.
“My ethics pledge requires me to recuse myself from all matters pertaining to ASRC and I will adhere to that, yes,” Sweeney said.
There’s no word yet on when the Senate committee will move her confirmation to the full Senate for a vote.
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