AZ Sen. Jackson Becomes a Native Voice on Keystone XL Pipeline

Anne Minard, Indian Country Today Media Network

Arizona Democratic Sen. Jack Jackson Jr., Navajo, is resigning his post to work as a tribal liaison on environmental issues for the federal government.

Jackson had served one previous term in the state legislature between 2003 and 2005, overlapping with his father, Sen. Jack C. Jackson Sr., who served between 1985 and 2004. They became the first father and son to serve together in the Arizona State Legislature.

But the younger Jackson declined to seek re-election in 2005, and for a time worked as a consultant on tribal issues, among other roles. He returned to elected office in 2011, in the Arizona Senate, and began his second consecutive two-year term in January. But shortly thereafter, he was recruited to serve as senior advisor and liaison for Native American affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs.

Jackson’s new position was crafted in response to tribal leaders who have complained about improper consultation during the process to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline.

“We know that tribal leaders in North Dakota walked out of a consultation meeting with the State Department, saying that they wanted someone there like the President or Secretary Kerry to meet with them, as tribal leaders,” Jackson said, taking a break from unpacking boxes in Washington on July 4. “I believe that this new position, with someone who is Native American and has a background in dealing with tribes, hopefully that will help those tribal leaders remain at the table.”

Like all oil pipelines, the Keystone XL Pipeline falls under the State Department’s purview because of a 1968 executive order by Lyndon Johnson. Jackson’s bureau, its name often shortened to Oceans, Environment and Science (OES), works on a variety of issues besides energy. They range from water sanitation in developing countries, to climate change, to policies in space.

“For anything that deals with environmental and cultural impacts to tribes, the Department of State is trying to make sure that there’s someone there,” Jackson said.

Jackson is no stranger to Washington; he spent 12 years there after graduating from Syracuse University law school in 1989. He started as a legislative associate, and then was promoted to deputy director for the Navajo Nation Washington Office, representing the concerns of his people before the federal government. During his first stint in Washington, Jackson also worked as a legislative analyst at the National Indian Education Association and director of governmental affairs for the National Congress of American Indians.

He has been back in Arizona for 12 years, during which time he’s served on two different occasions in the state legislature and performed a variety of other roles. Most recently, he has been a senior strategist in the Blue Stone Strategy Group, a national Native-owned consulting firm that helps empower tribes in the areas of sovereignty, self-determination and self-sufficiency in the business and governmental sectors.

Even though he’s vacating his current term early, he said he’s proud of what he accomplished already this year. He was able to secure $2.4 million in emergency funding for the Red Mesa Unified School District, on a remote part of the Navajo nation near Arizona’s border with Utah. The district was threatened with financially necessary closure after it was ruled that it could not count its students from Utah when it received its Arizona state allocations.

He also worked to make tribes eligible to compete for moneys out of Arizona’s aviation fund, which go for maintenance and construction at public airports. There are 14 tribally-owned airports in Arizona. And he secured annual funding so that Navajo Technical College can build a permanent campus in Chinle, Arizona.

He said a farther-reaching effort he began in 2003 has been “inching its way” toward fruition: making sure tribes get back a fair portion of the transaction privilege taxes collected from non-Indian businesses on reservations. As it stands now, the state collects the money and divides it between the state, counties and municipalities, leaving tribes out of the equation. Finally, this year, Jackson’s legislation to remedy that formula made it out of committee – but died in the full Senate.

“I hope that next session my successor and representatives Hale and Peshlakai will be able to keep up that momentum,” Jackson said.

Jackson said he’ll miss his family and friends in Arizona, but he and his husband of five years, David Bailey, will keep a home in Phoenix to facilitate Bailey’s ongoing, Arizona-based job with U.S. Airways. So frequent travel to his homelands will be possible, Jackson said, adding that his new role is worth some sacrifice.

“Having a voice on environmental and cultural impacts on tribes is very important, especially now, with the things that our Mother Earth is facing,” he said. “As a Navajo person, my family made sure all the prayers and blessings were in place.”