White House to elevate Indian affairs, appoint special adviser
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President Barack Obama will soon name a senior White House adviser for tribal issues in a move that elevates the concerns of American Indians to a higher point than previous administrations.

First Lady Michelle Obama told employees at the Interior Department on Monday that American Indians have a "wonderful partner in the White House right now," and her husband plans to improve that relationship even more.

"He'll soon appoint a policy adviser to his senior White House staff to work with tribes and across the government on these issues such as sovereignty, health care, education -- all central to the well-being of Native American families and the prosperity of tribes all across this country," the first lady said.

President Obama vowed on the campaign trail that he would name a senior adviser to work as a liaison for American-Indians affairs, as well as hold an annual summit at the White House with tribal leaders.

"Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as American Indians," Obama wrote last October in an American-Indian news outlet. "Too often, Washington pays lip service to working with tribes while taking a one-size-fits-all approach with tribal communities across the nation."

Previous administrations have named a liaison in their Intergovernmental Affairs offices for Native Americans, though observers say this will be the first such voice at such a high level overseeing tribal concerns.

A White House official said Monday filling the position is part of the "staffing up process," and may be formally announced in the next two weeks.

The nation's 562 federally recognized tribes and Alaskan bands have been waiting to see if Obama would follow through on his campaign promise, according to George Hardeen, a spokesman for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. And Monday's announcement was "great news" for those who have been "hoping and praying" that the position would some day be created.

"For too long, tribes and their voices have been filtered out and have not reached the highest levels of government," Hardeen said. "And tribes have a special government-to-government relationship with the federal government. Tribal leaders have always felt that their concerns needed to be heard by the president of the United States."

The Navajo Nation claims about 310,000 members in America, of which 8,000 reside in Utah, Hardeen says.

On the north end of the state, Bruce Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshoni Nation, said it will be good to finally have someone to advocate for American Indians at the highest level of government.

"It's one thing to have an assistant secretary in the Interior Department, but to have someone in the White House who can spend time and energy working on Indian issues is a great thing," Parry said.

The Northwest Band has nearly 500 members in Utah.

In San Juan County, Mark Maryboy, a former county commissioner and Navajo Tribal Council member, says it's been difficult in the past to get those in the highest levels of government to pay attention to American-Indian issues.

"Native Americans are still struggling socially and economically and there certainly needs to be a voice in the administration to help Native Americans on and off the reservation with many, many issues," Maryboy said. "And I certainly hope that happens in the near future."

tburr@sltrib.com