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 and 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 cultures 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 Tuesday.
"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. In June, Obama signed an executive order creating the White House Council on Native American Affairs, and on Nov. 13 the White House held its fifth annual Tribal Nations Conference at the Department of the Interior.
A Native American presence at the table is something that has long been missing in Washington, said Jackson, who ran for Congress once before and said he is interested in running again in the future.
"When I started working here in Washington over 24 years ago, I would go to the Hill and meet with our congressional representatives," he said. "I always envisioned myself behind that desk, and thought, ‘Why couldn't a Native American person be sitting on the other side of a congressional desk?'"
Coming from the Navajo Nation, where unemployment usually hovers above 40 percent and the economy depends heavily on coal mines and coal-fired power plants on the reservation, Jackson said he understands the economic issues facing Indian Country firsthand.
That personal experience makes him the right person to negotiate with tribes on issues like the Keystone XL Pipeline, said Clara Pratte, executive director of the Navajo Nation's Washington Office. The pipeline extension would carry crude oil through Native American reservations on its way from Alberta, Canada, through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. Pratte said Jackson's balanced demeanor will help Native Americans on both sides of the debate.
"On Keystone, there are so many varying viewpoints on that, even within Indian country," Pratte said. "Having him in that role will be beneficial for both sides, those who want the pipeline and those who do not want it."
Jackson believes his time in the legislature showed he can come through for tribes. He said he was proud of two bills in particular - one sending funds collected on the reservation toward Navajo Technical College, and another honoring World War II Hopi Code Talkers.
"I believe that I left on a really good note - a lot to look back on and be proud of," Jackson said of his time in the legislature. "And certainly using that experience, not only back here in D.C. but my time in Arizona … has helped me have some special understanding about what kind of outreach is needed to ensure meaningful consultation with tribes."