WASHINGTON — It's a neglected federal agency whose bureaucracy one chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee likened to having the efficiency of "walking through wet cement."
Putting his arms around that bureaucracy is "a daunting task," acknowledged Larry Echo Hawk, the former Idaho attorney general who took office June 1 as the assistant interior secretary in charge of Indian affairs.
"Sometimes I'm a bit frustrated because we have meetings, in conference rooms, and there's like 10 lawyers in the room, and we're talking about big issues," Echo Hawk said of his first few weeks on the job. "But I yearn to be able to see what the impact is, where the people are out in these isolated communities. So that's what I really care about."
He's set an ambitious agenda that zeros in on three key areas in Indian Country: economic development, education and, especially, law enforcement and policing.
"That perhaps is the one area that I feel I've got the most potential to contribute to, personally, because of my law enforcement background," said Echo Hawk, who was the first Native American ever to be elected as a state attorney general. "We're going to move ahead in that area, aggressively, in the next four years."
Echo Hawk, 60, served as Idaho's attorney general from 1991 to 1995. He's a former state prosecutor and attorney who for nine years was the general counsel of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes based in Idaho. Until his appointment as the assistant secretary, Echo Hawk was a professor at the Brigham Young University law school in Provo, Utah. He is a member of Oklahoma's Pawnee Tribe.
As the former law professor adjusts to life as a political appointee in the Obama administration, he's trying to figure out how to balance two key aspects of his job: elbowing his way into the White House's crowded domestic agenda, but also making sure he spends enough time talking to American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Echo Hawk said he was concerned about having the responsibility of overseeing Indian issues without a mandate from the White House, and that he didn't accept the job until he had the assurance of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that they would meet regularly. Under the Bush administration, Indian Affairs lacked consistent leadership -- a void that left career bureaucrats within the Bureau of Indian Affairs paralyzed, Indian leaders have complained.
But Echo Hawk said he got his reassurance. Salazar is "vitally concerned and interested in helping the American Indians and Alaska Natives and he has focused on empowering those communities to prosper. He's got a vision, he has an understanding, he wants to move forward."
There's a long list of needs in Indian Country, said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who coined the "wet cement" analogy, and chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It will be helpful to have good relationships at the White House, Dorgan said, but he also cautioned Echo Hawk to focus on taming the notorious BIA bureaucracy.
"Ken Salazar is going to be very helpful in trying to move things along," he said. "But getting things done means not only getting things done above you, but in the BIA, the question is, how do you get things done below you?"
Echo Hawk said he knows he'll also be spending plenty of time traveling. In the coming weeks he will visit Washington, Alaska, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
"We know the importance of getting out into Indian Country," Echo Hawk said. "Probably I'm one of the few officials that really has a mandate to do that, because I have 562 tribes that I have a responsibility to work with. And you can't work with them all by sitting behind a desk in Washington, D.C."
His first day on the job, Echo Hawk called 20 tribal leaders across the country. He visited the staff of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, then attended their convention in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
So far, he's been very engaged and accessible, said the congress's executive director, Jacqueline Johnson-Pata, a member of Alaska's Tlingit Tribe.
"I love him. I have to say, I really do," Johnson-Pata said. "If you went to his confirmation hearing, I tell you, I've been to a lot of hearings, and I felt this -- I don't even want to say it -- this spiritualness, this connection. I knew he was the right person for the job."
She believes the key to Echo Hawk's success will be maintaining close contact with Salazar. "I actually think that it has to happen from the top, and I think he's going to have that kind of access," she said.
Although the Obama administration has its hands full with the economy and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been every indication of support for Indian Country initiatives from Salazar and other top officials, said Samuel Penney, chairman of Idaho's Nez Perce tribe. President Barack Obama recently appointed Kimberly Teehee, of the Cherokee Nation, as the new senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs in the White House Domestic Policy Council, and has appointed several other Native Americans to top posts in his administration.
They're watching closely, though, Penney said. As a presidential candidate, Obama made a number of pledges to Indian Country, including a promise that the Interior Department would resolve a lawsuit claiming Indians were swindled out of billions of dollars in royalties from land held in trust, Penney said. They are hopeful Obama will keep his promise. But Penny also quoted the Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph, who said in the 1870s of promises that came from Washington D.C.: "Good words do not last long until they amount to something."
It's not just that, though, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and served briefly as the leading Republican on the panel.
"Way too many of our Native Americans are truly living in poverty conditions on reservations, and I think much of it is because the BIA can't administer federal programs that are for the benefit of the Indian people and that allow them to develop the lands," she said. "And who suffers? It's the Native people. He got his hands full, and I applaud him for his willingness."
Every day, Echo Hawk said, his main goal is to keep in mind what he can to improve the lives of the neediest people in Indian Country.
"What I really try to remember, when I'm driving into work, are people that struggle," he said. "They don't have a job, or they've got substance addiction or they're victims of abuse and neglect. They're struggling in those communities. My personal goal is to somehow figure out how I can impact their lives and make life easier, better for them."