Sweeney latest Alaskan tapped to join Trump administration
Arctic Slope Regional Corp. Executive Vice President Tara Sweeney’s nomination to assistant secretary of Indian Affairs is the latest signal that the Trump administration plans to involve Alaskans in helping to shape federal policies on everything from oil development to environmental cleanup.
US. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, appearing in a pre-recorded statement, told delegates at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention on Oct. 20 in Anchorage that he was honored to announce the first Alaskan Native ever to go before a Senate confirmation committee. Her nomination was previously announced from the White House on Oct. 16.
Zinke lauded Sweeney’s background from serving 20 years with the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., most recently as executive vice president of external and government affairs, to committee work and as co-chair of AFN. If confirmed, she will oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education within the Interior Department.
Zinke said he had wished to speak before the AFN delegates live via video conferencing, but was attending a family member’s funeral in Montana.
“She knows the key to unlocking the economic potential of tribal and Native communities is regulatory reform. And we are streamlining our operations. This includes everything from streamlining the permitting process to development (projects) to the clean up of contaminated lands,” Zinke said. “Under the Trump Administration, Alaska has scored major victories” in appointments that, including Sweeney, now number six.
Chris Oliver is now the administrator of National Marine Fisheries Service, and was the former executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Former Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner and most recently chief of staff to Sen. Dan Sullivan, Joe Balash is the Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Lands and Mineral Management.
Drue Pearce, a former state legislator, Interior Department advisor and federal gasline coordinator for Alaska, is the new Deputy Administrator for Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an office in the US Department of Transportation.
Chris Hladick, most recently the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, was named administrator of EPA Region 10 on Oct. 17.
Steve Wackowski, a former campaign manager for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, is now Zinke’s Alaska affairs advisor for the Interior Department.
Arctic Slope Regional Corp. consistently tops the Alaska Business Top 49er list as the largest locally-owned and operated business in Alaska, with revenues in excess of $2 billion and more than 10,000 employees worldwide.
Sweeney is known for advocacy of Alaska Native rights and promoting local programs that focus on cultural values, practices, and traditions. She also mentors young ASRC shareholders interested in becoming politically active. She also was honored in 2008 as a Top Forty Under 40 business leader by the Alaska Journal of Commerce, and has served on numerous business and non-profit boards, including the Alaska Federation of Natives.
“Tara hasn’t been confirmed yet, so she is constrained in what she can say,” AFN President Julie Kitka said, introducing Sweeney at the convention to a standing ovation.
During Sweeney’s brief appearance, she said she feels honored to be nominated for the post.
“I am almost an empty nester so I have a lot of time on my hands coming up. I’m certainly up for the task, if I am confirmed,” she said, referring to her two children. “I hope that I will represent Alaska and the Native Alaskan community well.”
Kitka noted that the late Morris Thompson of Tanana served as a Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioner from 1973-76, the first Alaskan in that post, at the crucial time after the Alaska Native Lands Claims Settlement Act.
“Today is no less important. This is a signal the administration wants to reach out to Alaska Natives and involve us in the very heart of the federal government,” Kitka said of Sweeney’s nomination. “My question is: are we up to the task?”
Kitka, who met on three previous occasions with Zinke, including during his Alaska visit in May, characterized Sweeney’s nomination as the “first significant outcome of our work with the new Trump administration.”
With Zinke, Sweeney will oversee a $2.5 billion budget and “trust responsibilities” to American Indian tribes, including all 562 federally recognized tribes, she said. Of those federally recognized, 229 are in Alaska.
“This is a crucial and powerful position in fulfilling the trust responsibility to tribes and individual Indian trust benefits, as well as tribal sovereignty,” Kitka said. “This is a crucial time for new ideas.”
Kitka predicted the “results-driven” Sweeney “will serve as a strong assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. Her experience with empowering Native Americans is unparalleled and she will help all tribes achieve great self-determination.”
Up until this past August, Sweeney also was chair of the Arctic Economic Council. Former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who served with her, said Sweeney distinguished herself as the first chair of the Arctic Economic Council.
“She recognized the global nature of her job, as the future of jobs and investment in the Arctic depends on global capital and global customers,” he said. “She was magnificent in making sure the needs of indigenous residents of the Arctic were communicated to the Arctic investment community.”
As supervisor of BIA, Treadwell believes she will do what she can to build jobs, sustainability and wealth for America’s indigenous people.
“She comes with the experience of having helped run one of the most successful indigenous corporations in the world — and raised a movie star son in the process,” he said, referring to Ahmaogak Sweeney, the little boy who stole hearts in “Big Miracle: Everybody Loves Whales,” also starring Drew Berrymore and John Krasinski.
Sweeney has pushed for Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy development. ASRC owns subsurface rights and the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp. owns surface rights to land within ANWR where development could occur. Native residents anticipate jobs, revenues and economic growth if Congress takes action.
Alaska’s congressional delegation had strong words of praise.
“With her long history of advocating for Alaska Native cultural values, rights, and economic opportunity, I can’t think of anyone better to have as our nation’s next Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs,” Sullivan said.
Murkowski ticked off Sweeney’s qualifications for the job.
“Tara has a very strong record of professionalism and accomplishment in Alaska, across the country, and internationally, especially with the indigenous people of the circumpolar north,” she said. “She has significant experience on Arctic issues and chaired the Arctic Economic Council. She is an expert on energy, infrastructure, broadband, economic development, Native self-determination, and a wide range of policy issues that will come before her. Secretary Zinke could not have chosen a better leader to help him fulfill the federal government’s trust responsibility, and I know Tara has the heart and drive to excel in this position.”
Rep. Don Young thinks Sweeney may be able to help sort out the beleaguered BIA.
“Tara’s knowledge, experience and leadership will go a long way in straightening out the BIA, allowing it to run more efficiently for the good of all First Americans,” Young said. “She has extensive experience not only in business, but also within Alaska Native groups and organizations. Tara knows first-hand the fight for Native empowerment and self-determination because she’s been on the front lines for years.
“There’s long been a problem with Native issues not receiving the priority they deserve but with Tara Sweeney at the helm, I have no doubt the Department of Interior will be paying close attention and the voices of our Native communities will be heard. Tara follows in great Alaskan footsteps, those of my dear friend Morris Thompson, and will do a fantastic job working on behalf of American Indians and Alaska Natives across the country.”
The National Congress of American Indians looked forward to Sweeney’s confirmation, according to President Brian Cladoosby.
“The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs is charged with the federal responsibility to protect tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and the trust relationship,” Cladoosby said. “We appreciate the administration’s commitment to efficiently staffing important positions within governmental departments directly affecting Indian Country, and we look forward to hearing from Ms. Sweeney about her goals and plans for working with tribal leaders to ensure the government-to-government relationship is upheld.”
Sweeney has lived most of her life in rural Alaska. She graduated from Barrow High School in 1991, and then left Alaska to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Sweeney graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial and labor relations.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]