SALT LAKE CITY — Distrust of the federal government ran high in Indian Country when Larry Echo Hawk arrived in Washington, D.C., three years ago.
Disputes over tribal homelands, sovereignty and water have plagued the relationship for decades. There also was a 13-year lawsuit over billions of dollars in royalties for oil, gas, grazing and other leases the government had failed to pay individual tribal members.
Those were a few of the longstanding issues Echo Hawk stepped into as assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2009.
And though he didn't resolve them all, those who worked with the longest serving BIA head in a decade say his quiet strength and willingness to listen helped remove some historic barriers.
“There is no doubt that in the last three years a new era for tribal relations with the United States has emerged and Larry Echo Hawk played no small part in it," said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. "He listened with great conviction, setting a tone for consultation that we must always ensure is reflected in the federal government’s approach to nation-to-nation meetings."
Echo Hawk announced his resignation Monday, effective April 27, after accepting a call to the First Quorum of the Seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has been the highest ranking Utahn in the Obama administration.
A member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, Echo Hawk becomes the only American Indian currently serving as an LDS Church general authority.
Before President Barack Obama appointed Echo Hawk to the BIA post, he worked as a law professor at Brigham Young University. He was elected as attorney general of Idaho in 1990, the first American Indian to ever serve in that position nationwide. He also was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1994.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had high praise for Echo Hawk.
"Larry has done an extraordinary job at Interior, opening a new chapter in our nation-to-nation relationship with American Indian and Alaska Natives tribal governments and carrying out President Obama's vision for empowering Indian nations," he said in a statement.
Salazar credited Echo Hawk, 63, with accelerating the restoration of tribal lands, improving public safety in tribal communities, resolving century-old water disputes, investing in education and helping Indian nations pursue the future of their choosing.
“The opportunity to participate in remedying the negative perceptions of the federal government in Indian Country was a formidable challenge at first, but I am proud to say that I have served my country as an agent for change here in Indian Affairs,” Echo Hawk said in a statement. “I believe at the end of this administration, the work we accomplished will leave a lasting legacy for American Indian and Alaska Natives."
Clara Pratte, executive director of the Navajo Nation's Washington office, said Echo Hawk stepped into a tough position at the BIA.
"It's hard to be the face of an agency that has negative perception in Indian Country," she said.
His leadership brought transparency and efficiency, she said.
"He was really involved in making sure Indian Country had a seat at the federal policy level, not just Interior, but all federal agencies," Pratte said. "Every agency has a program that touches Indian Country."
Echo Hawk organized an annual tribal leadership conference bringing 566 tribes together with the president and his cabinet.
Echo Hawk's older brother John Echohawk, a lawyer and executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, represented the plaintiff in the lawsuit over mismanaged royalties. The government settled the case for $3.4 billion several months after Echo Hawk took over the BIA.
While he didn't have anything to do with settlement, John Echohawk said his brother made a difference on many issues.
"He's very serious about his work. He's very responsible," he said. "Tribal leaders are pleased with his performance."