by Jack Fitzpatrick, Cronkite News Service
WASHINGTON – Former Arizona state Sen. Jack Jackson Jr. knew his job with the State Department would be a balancing act between representing the federal government and serving tribal communities.
But five months into the job, he is finding that he also faces another balancing act, the same one that challenges tribes across the country — how to weigh economic growth against cultural and environmental concerns.
As the State Department’s first liaison for Native American affairs, it is Jackson’s job to act as an ambassador to tribes when oil pipelines, contaminated water, air pollution or other issues cross tribal boundaries, and to make sure the State Department understands their priorities.
It’s a tricky role, as many tribes seek to protect sacred sites and a traditional way of life while also trying to fight high levels of unemployment and poverty, Jackson said. But his background as a Navajo who served in the Arizona House from 2003 to 2005 and Senate from 2011 to 2013 prepared him for the job, he said.
“Growing up on the Navajo Nation, and still practicing my Navajo traditions and my Navajo culture, this job affords me an opportunity to put mechanisms in place that will help other tribes, all tribes, to ensure that their traditional culture is protected,” Jackson said.
Many tribal communities face “Third World conditions,” Jackson said, but want to preserve the land, especially on sites they consider sacred. That can pit a tribe’s traditions against its economy.
Jackson, who started with the State Department in July, said his job boils down to “making sure that tribes are heard, making sure that tribes are afforded the opportunity to provide input” on environmental issues the department is involved in.
It is especially important for the federal government to understand that balance, Melinda Warner, spokeswoman for the National Congress of American Indians, said in a statement.
“Tribes want to bring more jobs to their people while also maintaining subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering — not to mention preserving sacred places for future generations,” she said in the statement. “The best way for the State Department to appreciate the tribal nuances of the conversation is to work closely with Native peoples.”
The creation of Jackson’s position is one of several actions by President Barack Obama to reach out to Native Americans, showing initiative that “sets him apart from other administrations,” Jackson said.