Larry EchoHawk’s Mormonism, Casinos, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs

By February 13, 2009

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.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Current Events Race


  1. Fascinating stuff, David. Thanks for posting this. Do you get the sense that the blogger is intentionally questioning EchoHawks’s “Indianness” because of his Mormonism? Is that common among Native Americans?

    Comment by Christopher — February 13, 2009 @ 12:42 am

  2. Very interesting, David. I can see where the blogger is coming from, yet I can also see the tough situation EchoHawk is put in. Whether or not EchoHawk was against casino expansion because of his Mormonism, I’m sure the tension of prophetic counsel and representative duty was on his mind–tough issues indeed.

    Comment by Ben — February 13, 2009 @ 12:57 am

  3. Also, the SL Tribune is reporting (as of two days ago) that Echohawk is “likely” to be selected for the position.

    Comment by Christopher — February 13, 2009 @ 1:15 am

  4. I just responded to a critic of Larry’s over at a blog where I sometimes contribute.

    Let me suggest that the politics of identity in this situation work differently than you suggested. EchoHawk isn’t getting criticized for being acculturated. The same thing is true of every Indian lawyer or tribal leader being consider for federal posts. It’s being Mormon that is EchoHawk’s liability in some quarters of Indian country, especially among those who remember the placement program.

    Comment by Sterling — February 13, 2009 @ 1:19 am

  5. Hmmm…. it was about 3 years ago that I read a major expose in Time magazine about how the gaming industry is dividing the Indian tribes increasingly into classes of haves and have-nots. It seems all the revenues go to connected families, and the real poor receive nothing. It also discussed the industry’s dependence on non-Indian gaming industry and how a lot of the real money is channeled into those enterprises. It also described the farce that any piece of property that an Indian buys is eligible for the gaming use permits regardless of whether the land has any connection to tribal land, thus creating a scramble by non-Indian gaming executives to “find” qualified Indians to act as fronts for their prospective casino locations. A good read.

    Comment by John — February 13, 2009 @ 2:56 am

  6. Obviously I can’t speak for EchoHawk, but as Attorney General of Idaho it was his responsibility to represent the interests of the entire state, not just those of the Indians. Tensions between state officials and tribes over gaming are ubiquitous, so EchoHawk’s conflict with the tribes may simply have been an outgrowth of his job, not his religion.

    Comment by Last Lemming — February 13, 2009 @ 9:45 am

  7. Sterling: Thanks for linking to that blog. Winter Rabbit’s logic is somewhat akin to the critics of Arthur Watkins, who accused him of pushing termination because of his Mormon views of Indians as Lamanites.

    I see your point about the acculturation/Mormon thing. It’s not so much that he’s acculturated, but rather what non-traditional religion he chooses to follow, right? If he were Presbyterian like Vine Deloria there wouldn’t be this kind of uproar, but because EchoHawk’s Mormon the opposition is heightened because of the connotations associated with Mormonism in Indian Country? I guess I was just reading into the situation the controversies between mixed bloods and full bloods, but you’re likely right that it’s not there.

    Comment by David G. — February 13, 2009 @ 9:52 am

  8. Christopher, I don’t know how common it is, but I read the blogger as saying that EchoHawk isn’t a real Indian because he holds a “non-traditional, foreign religion?s view of oppression.”

    Comment by David G. — February 13, 2009 @ 9:57 am

  9. There’s a plot arc in Big Love where Bill, the suburban polygamist, is trying to develope a “Mormon friendly” casino with a contact for an Indian tribe.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 13, 2009 @ 10:44 am

  10. This debate has nothing to do with the church, tribal gaming, or his family’s credentials, although his family’s credentials would be fantastic if the position allowed a package deal.

    His devotion to the church is only an issue in that it might be an underlying factor for his past actions. The biggest cause for concern is his assimilation in foreign thought and ideas. The question on every sovereign Indian’s mind is whether or not he has the capacity to instinctively defend Tribal Sovereignty, plain and simple.

    His conscious decision to join forces with a state government years ago landed him in a position that was opposite of the sovereign rights of Idaho Tribes to conduct gaming. In his own best efforts he did apologize for his actions recently, but somehow an apology fourteen years later seems insincere. One could draw the conclusion that he only did it because he needed the Idaho Tribe’s endorsements for his next big gig.

    His direct attack on Tribal Sovereignty may be forgiven, it should never be forgotten. Those who don?t learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them.

    Comment by TrueBee — February 13, 2009 @ 10:29 pm

  11. His direct attack on Tribal Sovereignty may be forgiven, it should never be forgotten.

    What exactly constitutes a direct attack on tribal sovereignty? Was it a necessary part of his position with the state? Or simply opposing gaming? Even within native country they aren’t exactly unanimous in favoring gaming.

    Comment by RG — February 14, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  12. Those who don?t learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them.

    Oooh, cliches about history. Just what we love around here.

    Comment by Christopher — February 14, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

  13. The short answer is every tribe is different and each one has their own customs and laws. The fact that not all are in favor of gaming illustrates that uniqueness. Some tribes are in favor of gaming, and in that case they have an inherent right to do what they want on their own lands. When a state tries to impose it’s will or laws upon the inherent rights of sovereign tribes in order to control them it is considered an attack on tribal sovereignty.

    Comment by TrueBee — February 14, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

  14. His direct attack on Tribal Sovereignty may be forgiven, it should never be forgotten.

    I am happy to speak against tribal sovereignty. After reading the afore-mentioned Time article, I sent an email to Pres. Bush regarding the unconstitionality of having a separate sovereign nation within the borders of the United States. Whatever mistakes were made in the past need to be put behind us, and we need to move on into the future with all native Americans being fully equal citizens of the United States without separateness or distinction of any kind. I should send another copy of that email to Pres. Obama now that the issue is before us again.

    There?s a plot arc in Big Love where Bill, the suburban polygamist, is trying to develope a ?Mormon friendly? casino with a contact for an Indian tribe.

    Hehe…!!! So I’ll take an order of nefries with a waters of mormon?!?!

    Comment by John — February 15, 2009 @ 7:30 am

  15. John, you’re stepping into a debate that started at least as early as the 1830s with Indian Removal. You claim that Indian sovereignty is unconstitutional. However, tribal soveriegnty is based on treaties with the federal government, and the Constition declares treaties to be the highest law of the land. So you can hardly call that “unconstitutional.” As for whether there should be no distinctions between Indians and other Americans, again, treaties claim otherwise. Indians have a strong case, based on law, that they should have the right to determine their own affairs.

    Now, you may be suggesting that we abrogate our treaties and obligations, but that has already been tried. During the 1950s, conservatives pushed through legislation that terminated treaties and the end result was a disaster, with widespread poverty and suffering in Indian Country. Nixon finally reversed termination as official federal policy, and replaced it with self-determination. Few people cognizant of the issues facing Native America would advocate a return to the termination era of the 1950s.

    So, just saying, your email isn’t going to change many minds in D.C., especially in the Obama administration.

    Comment by David G. — February 15, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

  16. and the Constitution

    expressly treats Indian tribes differently.

    It is a huge issue. The recently ex-dean of BYU’s law school has a fascinating series of articles on tribal law issues, well worth reading.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — February 15, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

  17. Eddie Brown, Assistant Secretary and director of BIA under Bush I, was in my ward while he served. Just as he left DC, he gave a fireside talking about his life experiences as a Mormon and Indian. It was really fascinating [for example, he told the story of leaving for his mission very tanned after painting houses in AZ all summer, served in Canada for 2 years, and returned pale to be complimented by his SP for his obvious good work as his complexion had lightened. Ouch!]. He did say (at the fireside) that he would entertain questions but was not interested in discussing gambling 😉 . He also mentioned that he had, at times in his life, served as an intermediary between Church and Indian nations and he never wanted to do so again.

    Looks like he is teaching now

    Comment by ESO — February 15, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  18. Oh, and good luck to Larry Echohawk or anyone in that job–it’s bound to be a tough one, always disappointing someone!

    Comment by ESO — February 15, 2009 @ 10:54 pm

  19. ESO, thanks for the link on Brown. I wasn’t aware of him, but that is really cool. I wouldn’t envy his position, taking over the BIA after Reagan’s budget reductions. And that’s also interesting about him not wanting to be an intermediary.

    Comment by David G. — February 15, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

  20. David–he gave the impression that it was about loyalties. The Church wanted him to make everything go their way because he was true blue Mormon, and the Indians wanted him to make everything go their way to prove he was really really Indian. Seems like a lose lose situation for him. [As I type this, I can’t even think of which issues might have required negotiation, just that he made that statement].

    My grandfather worked for the BIA during the 1950s-1960s. I am pretty sure it is ALWAYS a hard gig.

    Comment by ESO — February 16, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

  21. Couldn’t tribal areas be considered sovereign in the same sense (and subject to the same restrictions) as states are sovereign?

    If that were the case, they would presumably be able to legalize anything that a state could legalize (notably gambling), but not step beyond that into areas where the federal government has preempted state authority?

    Comment by Mark D. — February 17, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

  22. Mark, that’s how it would work in theory, but states have often tried to regulate what tribes did on reservations. And from what I understand, some Supreme Court decisions from the last few decades have upheld some of these actions.

    Comment by David G. — February 17, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  23. Great comments. The concept of Tribal Sovereignty need not be any more complicated than the concept of freedom. It only becomes complicated when outside governments, groups, and people want to interfere with our inherent rights to live as we will. As you can see from the comments here, outside reaction varies from the juvenile (resistance) to the intelligent (acceptance). Some people still live in fear, but most are at peace with our status as independent nations. The question that still burns in my mind is why do we still have resistance to our Sovereignty hundreds of years later? What’s wrong with just leaving us alone to live in peace?

    Comment by TrueBee — February 20, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

  24. The question that still burns in my mind is why do we still have resistance to our Sovereignty hundreds of years later? What?s wrong with just leaving us alone to live in peace?

    Other than a desire to steal your money and land?

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — January 21, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

  25. “What?s wrong with just leaving us alone to live in peace?”

    I have no problem leaving you alone and letting you live in peace. The problem is, the nations are not leaving alone and letting the communities near them live in peace. You (and I mean the nations as a whole) have gained economic prosperity at the expense of the communities that live around you through unfair business practices. Every local business that even attempts to compete with anything you in anything you do is at a competitive disadvantage because you don’t pay taxes. That’s non-debateable. You force businesses to close and families to move through non-competitive practices that, if any US citizen attempted to do, would be considered illegal; then you turn around and buy up the land at reduced rates. Your people are now only concerned about profit margins and land grabbing. And that is the exact reason why Indian Sovereignty is an antiquated farce that needs to end immediately. And please don’t try the “we’re only trying to self reliant and improve the plight of our people” BS angle either. I’ve seen the impact that the improvement of your people has had on local communities.

    And I love how people with a differing opinion to yours are considered “juvenile”. You preach tolerance yet are not tolerant yourself. You have no respect for anything other than your “way of life”. And your way of life is only improving financially by supporting yourselves with gambling institutions that add nothing back to society. Even the article above mentions “Gambling Traditions”. Are you kidding me? It’s now a “Tradition”?

    It’s really nothing to be proud of.

    Comment by Jeremy — May 27, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

  26. Jeremy, watch it. You talk as though all Natives are the same, but there are hundreds of distinct nations and languages in the United States. It’s not fair to generalize from your limited experience to all Native groups. While it is no doubt true (and unfortunate) that some casinos are hurting local white communities, the best way to deal with such issues is through the courts (which have been far more likely historically to side with whites when their interests are impacted), not getting rid of soveriegnty, which is guaranteed by treaties. And your blatant dismissal of indigenous cultures as simply “improving financially by supporting yourselves with gambling institutions that add nothing back to society” is shortsided and bigoted, and will not be tolerated here.

    Comment by David G. — May 27, 2010 @ 7:30 pm


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