WASHINGTON — Growing up in rural Oklahoma on the reservation of the Chickasaw Nation, Kevin Washburn spent a lot of time at the local hospital, waiting hours with his mother and brother, who needed asthma treatments.
But he said something changed when his tribe started running the Carl Albert Indian Hospital under a tribal self-governance program: Customer service improved. His mother actually once got a call saying not to show up on time for an appointment because the doctors were running late.
“To my family, it was a clear recognition that it was a new day for the Chickasaw Nation,” said Washburn, who on Thursday won unanimous backing from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to become the new head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law, he told the committee that his “gritty personal experience” would help drive his push for more tribal self-governance.
The BIA is a division of the Interior Department, where Washburn, should he be confirmed by the full Senate, would become assistant secretary for Indian affairs. The agency serves nearly 2 million American Indians and Alaska natives. It works with 566 federally recognized tribes and manages more than 55 million acres of land held in trust for the tribes by the federal government.
At his confirmation hearing last week, Washburn said that in his writings as an academic, he has questioned the logic of federal agencies serving Indian people, saying, “The overall structure of having services provided by people hundreds of miles away is rarely effective.”
Indian self-governance has improved education, health care and other government services on reservations, he said, but converting immediately to a new strategy was “not the answer for every tribe.”
W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Sequim, Wash., said that Washburn possessed “a remarkable acumen in tribal affairs.”
His nomination drew letters of support from more than 40 tribes in 15 states and more than 20 other organizations, according to Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, chairman of the Indian Affairs panel.
The praise was bipartisan. Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, noting that he and Washburn had attended the same high school, called him “a superb selection by the president.”
Washburn, a graduate of Yale Law School, is a former federal prosecutor and former general counsel for the National Indian Gaming Commission. He has also taught law at Harvard, the University of Minnesota and the University of Arizona.
He told the committee he was ready to run the BIA after spending most of his adult life “seeking to reform federal Indian policy so that it serves American Indians and tribes better.”
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