In September 2018, a widely-shared Facebook post claimed that President Donald Trump had appointed a Native American to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for the first time in United States history:
On 16 October 2017, President Trump nominated Tara Sweeney to become the U.S. Department of the Interior’s next Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. That position involves overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, two agencies within the Department of the Interior,.
However, both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education each has their own directors. In a press release to accompany President Trump’s nomination of her, the White House provided this overview of Sweeney’s career:
Ms. Sweeney is the executive vice president of external affairs for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), the largest locally owned and operated business in Alaska, owned by approximately 13,000 Iñupiat Eskimo members and 12,000 employees worldwide.
Ms. Sweeney grew up in rural Alaska and has spent a lifetime advocating for responsible Indian energy policy, rural connectivity, Arctic growth, and Native American self-determination. Ms. Sweeney served as chair of the Arctic Economic Council from 2015-2017. In 2013, Ms. Sweeney served as the co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and 2003, Ms. Sweeney served as special assistant for rural affairs and education in Governor Frank Murkowski’s administration. Honored in 2008 as a “Top Forty Under 40″ business leader, Ms. Sweeney was also inducted into the Anchorage ATHENA Society in 2017.
A graduate of Cornell University, Ms. Sweeney currently lives in Anchorage with her family. Ms. Sweeney is tribal member of the Native Village of Barrow and the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.
In June 2018, the U.S. Senate confirmed Sweeney’s appointment to the role by voice vote (that is, unanimously), and in August she was sworn in as Assistant Secretary. In announcing Sweeney’s swearing-in, the Bureau of Indian Affairs provided more detail about her upbringing and Native American heritage:
Among her honors, Sweeney — a lifetime member of the National Congress of American Indians — was crowned Miss NCAI in 1993 and traveled the country as an ambassador for the organization … Born to Dr. Bryan Mac Lean and the Late Representative Eileen Panigeo Mac Lean, Sweeney is the granddaughter of the Late May Ahmaogak Panigeo and the Late Henry Panigeo of Barrow. She is the great granddaughter of the Late Bert and Nellie Panigeo and Isabel and Dr. Roy Ahmaogak. She was raised, attended schools and lived most of her life in rural Alaska in villages from Noorvik to Wainwright, Barrow, Bethel, and Unalakleet.
Tara Sweeney is a Native American, and the first Alaska Native (as well as only the second woman) to hold the position of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.
However, she is not the first Native American to take up that role, despite what the Facebook post claimed. Since the foundation of the United States, the title given to the person in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has changed, but several of those individuals, operating under various titles, have been Native Americans.
The first Native American “Commissioner of Indian Affairs” was Ely S. Parker, a member of the Seneca nation who served in that role from 1869 to 1871. Since the creation of the position of “Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs” in 1977, all 12 persons who have held that position have been Native Americans. The agency’s web site provides this brief helpful history of the role:
Since 1824, there have been 45 Commissioners of Indian Affairs, of whom six have been American Indian or Alaska Native: Ely S. Parker, Seneca (1869-1871); Robert L. Bennett, Oneida (1966-1969); Louis R. Bruce, Mohawk-Oglala Sioux (1969-1973); Morris Thompson, Athabascan (1973-1976); Benjamin Reifel, Sioux (1976-1977); and William E. Hallett, Red Lake Chippewa (1979-1981).
From 1981 to 2003, the title “Deputy Commissioner” was used to denote the head of the BIA. In 2003, after a major reorganization of the BIA, the title was administratively changed to “Director,” which is still in use today. The first BIA Director was Terrance Virden, followed by Brian Pogue and Patrick Ragsdale (2005-2007). Then Jerold L. “Jerry” Gidner, Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa served from (2007-2010). Michael Black, Oglala Lakota Sioux, served as Director from 2010 to November, 2016. Bruce Loudermilk, a citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, served as Director from November 2016 to September 2017. Director Bryan Rice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma was appointed in October of 2017. Darryl Lacounte is serving as acting BIA Director.
William Hallett was the last to serve as BIA Commissioner following the establishment of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs position within the Interior Department in 1977. Since then, 12 individuals, all American Indians, have been confirmed by the United States Senate for the post: Forrest J. Gerard, Blackfeet (1977-1980); Thomas W. Fredericks, Mandan-Hidatsa (1981); Kenneth L. Smith, Wasco (1981-1984); Ross O. Swimmer, Cherokee Nation (1985-1989); Dr. Eddie F. Brown, Tohono O’odham-Yaqui (1989-1993); Ada E. Deer, Menominee (1993-1997); Kevin Gover, Pawnee (1997-2001); Neal A. McCaleb, Chickasaw Nation (2001-2002); David W. Anderson, Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa-Choctaw (2004-2005); and Carl J. Artman, Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin (2007-2008); Larry Echo Hawk, Pawnee (2009-2012); Kevin K. Washburn, Chickasaw Nation (2012-2016). Tara Mac Lean Sweeney, a prominent Alaskan leader and acclaimed businesswoman with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, was sworn in as the Department’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in 2018.
President Donald Trump’s nomination of Tara Sweeney was historic, and her confirmation was bipartisan and unanimous. However, a September 2018 Facebook post that described her appointment as the “first time in American history” that a Native American would be in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. was far from accurate.
The White House. “President Donald J. Trump Announces Intent to Nominate Tara Sweeney to the Department of the Interior.”
16 October 2017.
U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Affairs. “History Made: Alaskan Leader Tara Mac Lean Sweeney Becomes First Female Alaska Native for Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs.”
16 August 2018.