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Indian Affairs nominee vows to be an advocate for Indian country

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WASHINGTON – The man nominated to be the next head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs vowed Friday to advocate for Indian country in a time of diminished resources and challenges.

“I can’t guarantee that I can preserve resources as they’ve been, but I will work very hard to keep it that way,” Kevin Washburn told a packed Senate committee room during his confirmation hearing.

President Barack Obama nominated Washburn in August to replace former Assistant Secretary Larry Echo Hawk, who resigned earlier this year.

Washburn told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that he would promote cultural education and preservation, review the issue of federal recognition of tribes and support tribal courts.

But he cautioned that looming cuts under the budget sequestration could pose a stumbling block to American Indian economic development.

“Poor communities often suffer worst when we are tightening up budgets,” Washburn told the committee.

A Yale-educated lawyer who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, Washburn has long advocated for increased tribal sovereignty in law enforcement matters and helped draft the Tribal Law Enforcement Act of 2010.

He was warmly received by committee members.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said the bureau needs a leader who can work with many different groups at once. He said he is confident Washburn is that leader.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and the chairman of the committee, said it has received letters of support for Washburn from more than 40 tribes across 15 states, as well as about 20 other organizations.

“He has earned the support of Indian country,” said Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby in his testimony.

Anoatubby testified that Washburn is uniquely qualified to lead the BIA. His past service is well documented, Anoatubby said, and his scholarship has already helped tribes at the federal level.

Washburn has been dean of the University of New Mexico Law School since 2009. Before that he was Rosenstiel Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Arizona, where he taught courses on criminal law, contracts and gaming law.

He has also taught law at Harvard and the University of Minnesota.

Washburn was a law clerk in Phoenix for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from 1993 to 1994.

Friday’s hearing was filled with supporters, including members of Washburn’s family.

His mother, Shirley Stark, a member of the Chickasaw Elder’s Council, said her son is “a very gentle soul. He’s very concerned about everybody.”

His younger sister, Karla Kramer, said everyone in the family is excited about the nomination. She said her brother has always been very involved in Indian law, and is the type of person who can talk to anyone.

“He’s a good listener and he’s got a really good heart,” she said.

She thinks those qualities make her brother a good candidate for the job.

“Not to mention he’s pretty smart,” she said.