Cliff Matias
Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn sat with a panel from ICTMN in September while in New York.

BIA Head Kevin Washburn Speaks to ICTMN About One of the Toughest Jobs in Government

Gale Courey Toensing
10/21/14

When Kevin Washburn was a student at Yale Law School where he earned a Juris Doctor (JD) in 1993, he was editor-in-chief of the Yale Journal on Regulation, a student-edited law review covering regulatory and administrative law. Some 21 years later, he’s still involved with administrative law and regulations, albeit on a higher level. As the Interior Department’s Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs (AS-IA), Washburn holds the government’s top administrative position dealing with federal Indian law and right now he’s in the midst of reforming the most controversial regulations in Indian country – the rules for federally recognizing an American Indian tribe.

In the two decades between earning his law degree and his Senate confirmation on September 21, 2012, Washburn, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation who grew up in Oklahoma, racked up a wide range of public service legal experience in the courts, the federal government and the university.

Washburn was dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law from 2009 until his appointment as ASIA. He served as the Rosentiel Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law from 2008 to 2009, and as an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School from 2002 to 2008. From 2007 to 2008, Washburn was the Oneida Indian Nation Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School.

Washburn served as General Counsel for the National Indian Gaming Commission from 2000 to 2002, and as an Assistant United States Attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico, from 1997 to 2000. He was a trial attorney in the Indian Resource Section of the U.S. Department of Justice from 1994 to 1997. From 1993 to 1994, he clerked for the Hon. William C. Canby Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Phoenix. He received the Environmental Protection Agency’s Bronze Medal for Commendable Service (2000) for his successful Clean Air Act litigation and Special Commendations for Outstanding Service from the Justice Department (1997, 1998).

One of the country’s top Indian law scholars, Washburn is a co-author and editor of the leading legal treatise in the field of Indian law, Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law (2012 edition) and has written dozens of scholarly papers available at the Social Science Research Network.

Washburn is married with two children.

In September during what will no doubt turn out to be the most exciting days of the year in New York City when an estimated 400,000 people gathered for the historic Peoples’ Climate March and the United Nations General Assembly opened its 69th regular session with the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, Washburn added to our excitement here at ICTMN by taking a few hours to sit with us for an interview. ICTMN's panel consisted of Ray Halbritter, Publisher; Gale Courey Toensing, staff reporter as moderator; Ray Cook, Opinions Editor; Valerie Taliman, West Coast Editor; and Simon Moya-Smith, Correspondent. All participants asked questions at various points in the conversation (photographer Cliff Matias, a resident of Hawaii, chimed in at one point as well). Christopher Napolitano, Creative Director and Nedra Darling, director of Public Affairs for the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs were also present; Rob Capriccioso, DC Bureau Chief, who was unable to attend, provided questions in advance for Toensing to introduce. For readability and clarity, we have chose not to identify individual speakers presenting comments and queries by the ICTMN panel.

In our first interview back in October 2012, you said you were skeptical about taking this job and you described it as “one of the hardest jobs in government.” Do you have any regrets that you took it and has it turned out to be one of the hardest jobs in government?

Well, I didn’t have much information to go on, but it certainly is a difficult job. It’s largely because of having to be an expert in everything all the time – just think of the range of the questions you’ll ask. Coming from an academic background, you’re not supposed to be opining about things if you're not an expert in that subject. Now I’m asked all kinds of questions that I know just a little bit about because I have to skim across the surface of so many subjects. So, honestly, sometimes what gets me smarter on an issue is when a reporter is asking questions because my first impression is, “I didn’t even know about that issue, let’s dig into it.” So you all play a role in educating me and every other decision-maker in Washington in that respect.

RELATED: Salazar and Washburn: Much Achieved, Much More to Do

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