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High-ranking BIA official addresses Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council quarterly meeting

By B.L. Azure
Char-Koosta News

John Tahsuda III, Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, addresses attendees at the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council quarterly meeting. (B.L. Azure photo)John Tahsuda III, Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, addresses attendees at the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council quarterly meeting. (B.L. Azure photo)

POLSON — John Tahsuda III, Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, gave an introductory address at the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council quarterly meeting held the past week at the KwaTaqNuk Resort and Casino. Although he is not the top administrator at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he is the highest-ranking BIA appointee so far under the Trump administration, and is under consideration to be either the acting or appointed Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, the top position at the BIA.

“I am only in my sixth week on the job and I am still learning,” Tahsuda told the nearly 50 attendees at his address. “I ask for your patience. I want to do the best job for you. I am a big proponent of self-governance. The decision-making should be left with the tribes — you should have control over your destiny.”

Tahsuda, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, has been in the position at the BIA since the waning days of summer — he was appointed by Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke on Sept. 3.

“I want to welcome John Tahsuda to my Indian Affairs leadership team,” Zinke said at the time of the appointment. “John possesses extensive experience in federal Indian law and tribal government, and deeply understands and respects our government-to-government relationship with tribes. He’ll be a strong leader for the Indian Affairs organization.”

Lesa Evers, Montana Department of Health and Human Services, gave an overview of how the proposed 10 percent cut in the state budget would affect DPHHS programs in Indian Country. (B.L. Azure photo)Lesa Evers, Montana Department of Health and Human Services, gave an overview of how the proposed 10 percent cut in the state budget would affect DPHHS programs in Indian Country. (B.L. Azure photo)

Tahsuda is an attorney — he received a juris doctorate from Cornell Law School in 1993 and a Bachelor of Science degree from Oklahoma State University in 1990 — well known in Indian Country and the nation’s capitol. He worked for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs under Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), and retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) between 2002 and 2007. While there he served first as senior counsel and later as staff director, where he directed policy and legislative efforts relating to Indian tribes. He also was directly responsible for federal policy and legislation affecting gaming, federal recognition, self-governance, and Indian health care. Prior to joining the Committee on Indian Affairs staff, Tahsuda was engaged in private practice providing legal advice and legislative counseling to Indian tribes and tribal organizations. He also spent time at National Indian Gaming Association, which represents more than 180 tribes. Since 2007, Tahsuda has led the tribal affairs practice at Navigators Global, a Washington, D.C. lobbying, management and communications firm.

“I appreciate Secretary Zinke for giving me this tremendous opportunity to bring greater prosperity to tribes and their communities,” Tahsuda said at the time of his appointment. “I’m looking forward to working with tribal leaders on finding ways to make Indian Affairs programs more responsive to their needs.”

Executive Director of the RMTLC Bill Snell (right) listens to concerns of an attendee at the RMTLC quarterly meeting. (B.L. Azure photo)Executive Director of the RMTLC Bill Snell (right) listens to concerns of an attendee at the RMTLC quarterly meeting. (B.L. Azure photo)

One way to be more responsive to addressing Indian Country needs is stripping or chipping away at federal bureaucratic regulations that hinder response times and ultimately exacerbates the needs. Tahsuda said tribes should work with the BIA to find ways to lessen federal regulations that hinder progression on all avenues, be they economic or social. That, he said, might happen under the Zinke leadership.

“Secretary Zinke is looking at the next 100 years at the Department of Interior. He wants it to be a service unit for the people,” Tahsuda said. “What do you want the BIA to be like over the next 100 years? Think about that and give us your thoughts, your comments.”

Tahsuda said that do to the sovereign government-to-government relationship between Tribal Nations and the United States the BIA has for the last 30 years become more Indian-centric.

Gerald Gray, chair of the Little Shell Tribe, urges Tahsuda to push forward with federal recognition of the Little Shell. (B.L. Azure photo)Gerald Gray, chair of the Little Shell Tribe, urges Tahsuda to push forward with federal recognition of the Little Shell. (B.L. Azure photo)

“The face of the BIA has changed over the 30 years or so. It now as an Indian face,” he said. However, even that face is changing as many BIA personnel are retiring or soon will be. “Human capital is a big issue at the BIA. We are going to lose a wealth of knowledge and experience.”

He said the experience would be hard to replace because few young Indians view the BIA as a good career option. “We have to encourage our youth to continue to be responsible to Indian people,” Tahsuda said. “We need to educate them for the career opportunities at the BIA.”
Tahsuda said the BIA presently has numerous position openings to fill. “Our ongoing effort is to address our human capital issue — we have a shortage of regional directors,” he said. “But it is incumbent upon us to do the best job we can with the staff and budget we have. We will prioritize (issues/projects) and start from the top and work down. At the end of the day we will do the best job we can in carrying out our responsibility to the tribes. My dream is hands-off. I am a big self-governance guy. In 50 years I see the tribes doing everything for themselves, except inherent federal duties.”

John Tahsuda III, Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, addresses attendees at the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council quarterly meeting. (B.L. Azure photo)John Tahsuda III, Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, addresses attendees at the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council quarterly meeting. (B.L. Azure photo)

The Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC), headquartered in Billings, is dedicated to improving health, economic development and education for Tribes and their members through a variety of programs, policy recommendations, and Tribal Leader meetings. RMTLC also endeavors to coordinate advocacy and promote the similar interests of member Tribes through various collaborative initiatives and projects.

Their mission is to preserve our homelands, defend rights of the Indian Treaties with the United States, speak in a unified voice, offer support to our people, offer a forum in which to consult each other and enlighten each other about our peoples, and to otherwise promote the common welfare of all of the Indian Peoples of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

Members of the RMTLC include: Blackfeet Tribe, Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boys, Fort Belknap Indian Community, Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Crow Tribe, Little Shell Tribe of Montana, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Eastern Shoshone Tribal Council, Northern Arapaho Tribal Council and Shoshone Bannock Tribes of Ft. Hall.

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