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Former Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Visits Phoenix, Reflects on President Obama’s Indian Country Legacy

Former Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn speaks to a group at Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law in Phoenix in October. Washburn discussed President Barack Obama's legacy in Indian Country.

Kevin Washburn originally planned to work in Washington, D.C., for two years, no more.

Instead, the law professor stayed for three-plus years as President Barack Obama’s lead official for his relationship with tribal nations and Indian Country.

Washburn (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma) took leave from the University of New Mexico School of Law in 2012 to become the 12th Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs. He left the position at the end of 2015. He’s currently on a yearlong sabbatical and could return to his role as dean of the UNM law school in 2017.

Washburn recently shared his experiences working under President Obama in a public forum at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in Phoenix. About 50 people, mostly law students, attended the roughly one-hour lunch lecture titled “Obama’s Legacy in Indian Country.”

“The Obama Administration has done a lot,” Washburn said. “He dramatically improved government-to-government relations with tribes.”

Only one U.S president is worthy of comparison to Obama’s work in Indian Country, at least over the last 50 years, Washburn said, and that’s former President Richard Nixon, known for the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975.

One example in Obama’s favor was the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, for which tribal leaders from federally recognized tribes were invited to visit Washington and meet with federal government officials, including President Obama. Washburn was in charge of three of the conferences during his tenure. Obama’s eighth and final conference was held in September.

“The real value was the 11 to 13 cabinet secretaries who had to show up [at the Tribal Nations Conference each] year,” Washburn said. “They knew every year they would have to explain what they have done for Indian Country lately, so every one of those cabinet secretaries was very focused on driving policy in Indian Country because they knew they would have to report to 500 tribal nations and to the president.”

Here is a roundup of tribal-related policy and action driven by President Obama:

• Increased funding to Indian Health Services by nearly 50 percent as part of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

• Land Buy-Back Program: 2 million acres of land returned to tribes.

• FEMA Stafford Act: Tribal disaster declarations.

• Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010.

• Violence Against Women Act of 2013.

• New guidelines and regulations for the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

• $3 billion spent in Indian Country as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

• More than $10 billion in tribal settlements, including Cobell v. Salazar ($3.4 billion) and water rights–related settlements ($2 billion).

• Appointed the first Native American to the federal bench (Diane Humetewa) and the first Native American Ambassador to the United Nations for Human Rights (Keith Harper).

• Generation Indigenous and the White House Tribal Youth Gathering.

“The key is that the president has given access to tribes,” Washburn said. “He heard their concerns. He never wanted to be embarrassed in those meetings; he wanted to make sure he could stand tall in those meetings and show that he was delivering. He really kept his promise in Indian Country.

“It was really sad when President Obama walked off that stage [at the September Tribal Nations Conference], because it’s an end of the era.”

You can follow Washburn on Twitter at @kevin_washburn.