Keith Harper confirmed as human rights ambassador.

Keith Harper, Cherokee Nation Citizen, Confirmed as Ambassador

Rob Capriccioso

The Senate voted 52 – 42 on June 3 to confirm Cherokee Nation citizen Keith Harper as a human rights ambassador to the United Nations.

Harper is the first citizen of a federally-recognized tribe to become an U.S. ambassador following J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed in 2012. Stevens was a citizen of the non-federally-recognized Chinook Tribe.

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Senators who supported Harper cited his Cherokee ancestry and the historic nature of his nomination as top reasons for championing him.

“Mr. Harper is a well-qualified and historic nominee [and] he enjoys strong support including from within Indian country,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in December.

A partner with Kilpatrick Stockton, Harper is widely known in Indian country for being a lawyer in the Cobell trust litigation and its $3.4 billion ongoing settlement with the Obama administration. His long-time work on the case has been lauded by many Indians, as has his representation of tribes on other matters.

Harper was twice nominated for the human rights ambassadorship by President Barack Obama, first in June 2013. Harper had previously been a top campaign finance bundler for the president, and he served on the president’s transition team and on a presidential committee.

His nomination was not without controversy. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) noted in a floor speech June 2 that the Cobell legal team sent and posted online a letter during the settlement phase of the trust case to members of the class that encouraged them to contact four Native Americans who appealed the settlement.

The letter listed the Native Americans’ addresses and phone numbers, and McCain viewed this as an invitation for harassment. McCain also said Harper’s communications with the Senate over his involvement with the letter was dubious.

“What concerns me is his character, particularly his conduct in connection with a matter that could rightly be described as one of the greatest mistreatments of Native Americans by the federal government in recent memory,” McCain said. “That matter is known as the Cobell case.”

Through the course of Harper’s year-long confirmation process, two Indian lawyers have also said he was aggressive during past confrontations related to the Cobell case, while some tribal citizens said Harper had ignored some important tribal and Indian human rights issues.

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