Word leaked out on January 23 that the Obama administration was vetting BYU law professor Larry EchoHawk for a potential nomination as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs. Echohawk is well-known in Indian Country for his advocacy for various tribal groups, and has served as an Idaho State Representative and Idaho Attorney General. EchoHawk’s relative, John, was one of the founders of the Native American Rights Fund, a major Indian law firm. If appointed, EchoHawk would not be the first Mormon Assistant Secretary of the Interior (H. Rex Lee served in the position in the 1950s), but he would likely be the highest-ranking American Indian Latter-day Saint in government service.
In spite of his (and his family’s) credentials, EchoHawk has his critics. While serving as attorney general, he opposed the expansion of gaming privileges to Idaho tribes, which critic Scott Crowell sees as evidence that EchoHawk does not support the interests and sovereignty of Indian tribes. While Crowell did not specify a motivation behind EchoHawk’s opposition to gaming, several blogs, including Native Issues, argue that it is EchoHawk’s Mormonism that leads to his opposition to casinos. Here are a few excerpts:
So what does Larry Echo Hawk know? He knows he’s a Morman. . .
I am in admiration for his bit of legal wrangling, what I fail to understand is why he could not simply resign if his “religious” beliefs were in opposition to any Tribe’s Sovereign Right to continue our gambling tradition. . .
Today, it would not be hard to find tribal members from the Pacific Northwest, tribal members from large land-based reservations, that don’t want Larry Echo Hawk in office messing up Tribal Sovereignty from a non-traditional, foreign religion’s view of oppression. . .
The blogger goes so far as to question EchoHawk’s “Indianness,” thereby revealing the deep suspicions and divisions between traditional Native Americans and acculturated Indians such as EchoHawk that continue to shape the American Indian experience.
I don’t mean to argue here the EchoHawk really is opposed to Indian casinos because of his Mormonism, since EchoHawk may have had other motivations for his position. Not all Mormons are opposed to gaming (despite efforts by the Brethren to warn against it), so to assume that EchoHawk is against gambling because he is a Mormon is a non-sequitur. I’m not aware of any statements from EchoHawk that would clarify the issue. But I find it fascinating that his Mormon beliefs are coloring the debate in Indian Country over his potential nomination, because it reveals to a degree how some in Indian Country perceive the Church and its power in the West.