Rob Capriccioso
Wizipan Garriott, former Indian advocate for the Obama administration, speaks at closing ceremonies for the week-long Cowboy and Indian Alliance protest that wrapped up on Saturday April 26, 2014.

Former Obama Indian Advocate Fights for Hope on Keystone XL

Rob Capriccioso

Wizipan Garriott has once again been inspired to action, this time to stop development of the Keystone XL pipeline. He was one of those front and center at the week-long protest against the project, which wrapped up on Saturday April 26.

RELATED: Cowboys and Indians Ride on DC, Protesting Keystone XL for Earth Day

Maybe he’s the one to do it. In 2007, he was stirred to support the historic Obama campaign for president and its grand promises of hope and change. Early on, before it was ever clear that the young senator from Illinois would be able to defeat Hillary Clinton’s seemingly unstoppable bid for the Democratic nomination, Garriott joined the team of President Barack Obama as a Native American outreach coordinator. By June 2008 he had been promoted to become the campaign’s Native vote director, responsible for overseeing outreach to tribal citizens nationwide.

After the president’s victory in fall 2008 over Republican nominee Senator John McCain, Garriott was rewarded at the age of 28 with the title of First Americans Public Liaison within the administration’s transition team, and he was later hired as deputy chief of staff to former Interior Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, a job Garriott exited in early 2011.

RELATED: Wizipan Garriott Named Obama’s First Americans Public Liaison

During three years of service, Garriott was part of the governmental apparatus, trying to influence tribal-federal relations from within the federal system. There were sometimes pitfalls and feelings of discouragement, he has lamented, but there were also victories, such as the hiring of many Native Americans to positions in a variety of federal agencies and the passage pro-tribal federal laws, including the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, as well as progress on longstanding water and trust settlement disputes.

Then, just as suddenly as he had arrived on the national political scene, Garriott was called back to his own tribe, first to become director of the Rosebud Sioux Office of Analysis in late 2011 and later to be named CEO of the tribe’s Economic Development Corporation, a position he holds to this day.

Garriott is now firmly rooted on the outside of the federal system. And, as evidenced by introductions of him at public events, he now goes by Wizipan Garriott Little Elk as a nod to both of his parents’ names.

Having worked in major positions on both sides of the tribal-federal fence, the Yale-educated tribal citizen who once assisted former Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) is in a unique position to assess the nation-to-nation relationship.

“It is an inescapable reality that the most pro-tribal federal employee (what I strived to be), and even the greatest tribal advocate or tribal chairman, must work within the framework of federal Indian law and policy,” Garriott wrote on the Last Real Indians website in 2012. “As long as we accept and rely upon federal dollars, we will be beholden to these laws; but who’s to say this framework can’t be changed in fundamental ways.”

Along those lines, Garriott has suggested that Indian country needs to establish an overarching national political platform.

“If we do not begin pushing for fundamental changes, nothing will happen,” he wrote again at Last Real Indians. “It is time for Indian country to begin putting forward some basic, simple, big ideas.”

One idea Garriott is working on is to get his former employer, Obama, to once and for all deny the expansion of the Canadian Keystone XL Pipeline through the United States and through tribally connected water and land that could be polluted and environmentally impacted by the development if it were to go forward.


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