FROM THE ARCHIVE

McCaleb changed yes but little else did

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FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2002

When President George W. Bush nominated him as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs back in April 2001, Neal McCaleb did what any bureaucrat who has come within 10 feet of the trust fund debacle would do. He said he would try and fix it.

It was a stance he carried to his confirmation hearing, where he resisted proposals to take away trust functions from the BIA. Let me do the job, he said.

"The trust functions overall are so all-inclusive within the bureau that you're really not transferring a single function," McCaleb told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in June 2001. "You're transferring trust responsibility to some other agency."

But when he joined the Bush administration one month later, the approach shifted. Instead of talking head-on about long-standing mismanagement problems, McCaleb suddenly started deferring questions to the Office of the Special Trustee, the entity set up by Congress in 1994 to resolve the mess.

The strategy helped shield McCaleb from the pressure the Department of Interior was facing as a federal court monitor began revealing what many in Indian Country believed to be true: after more than $600 million, trust reform wasn't working. He was able to focus, instead, on his pet projects of economic opportunity and energy development, where he believed the future of American Indians and Alaska Native needed to be directed.

That all changed on November 15, 2001, when Secretary Gale Norton announced, without prior consultation with tribes or other affected parties, plans to create "some other agency" to handle billions of dollars of funds derived from 54 million acres of lands throughout the United States. BITAM, as it was known, was met immediately with unanimous opposition in Indian Country.

And suddenly, Neal McCaleb, the Interior's highest ranking Indian became the shield for everyone else. "They thought they were doing Indians a favor," one department official said of the top management.

It was an important role, acknowledged Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles yesterday. McCaleb "helped me get out of jail," he recalled at the department's Native American Heritage Month celebration.

And from McCaleb, Griles said he learned more about Indian culture and the federal government's unique relationship with Indian nations, "something, frankly, I knew very little about."

In effect, McCaleb became the perfect fall guy. He was there to keep order as tribal leaders, during a series nationwide meetings that began last December, relentlessly pummeled the department, particularly Norton, for trying to dismantle the BIA without their input.

Norton "felt the wrath of Indian Country," said National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall. McCaleb, on the other hand, "did pretty good" at the meetings, he allowed, a widely held view that continued as the department slowly agreed to sponsor a task force, now defunct, to tackle the issue.

But as he took an increasingly visible role at the table, McCaleb began to show signs of fatigue. He couldn't shake off serious deficiencies with the BIA's computer systems, problems that left millions of dollars in Indian-owned funds open to attack. His 10,000 employees have yet to recover from a court-ordered shutdown.

He fell in the middle of an historic struggle between the BIA and the OST. During the Clinton administration, the two entities were often at war with one another over key trust reform projects, with the largely Indian BIA feeling maligned.

"It's clear [top OST officials] believe Indian preference prevents the BIA from being able to recruit and retain people who are capable of conducting trust processes," former assistant secretary Kevin Gover summarized of the dispute.

McCaleb tried to change things. He openly pledged support to Tom Slonaker, the former special trustee who became another casualty this past July when he was ousted after he questioned claims of progress.

Many within Indian Country, however, were not inclined to let that relationship grow. After McCaleb begrudgingly handed over control of his land appraisal function to OST, tribal leaders demanded it be returned. The task force, co-chaired by McCaleb and Griles, eventually came to agree on dismantling the OST altogether.

And as the massive class action suit representing 500,000 American Indians inched its way to resolution, the man who was once at arm's length became a bigger target. "Mr. McCaleb was part of the problem," said Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Tribes on the task force eventually had a falling out with department officials on a number of key issues of accountability and independence of trust management. "There needs to be reform and legislation on trust standards," said Geri Small, president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana.

McCaleb took a hard line on the issue at at the final meeting of the panel in late September. Tribal attendees were shocked into silence as he painfully described that he had a "gun cocked to his head" after being held in contempt of court by a federal judge overseeing the lawsuit.

He reiterated the point last week at what might be his last major appearance before a tribal organization. At the National Congress of American Indians, said the "realities" of a court-imposed timeline meant he didn't have time to work closely with the tribes.

"I don't want to make the judge madder than he already is," he said.

Set to depart by the end of the year, McCaleb leaves a lot of unfinished business. Save for a probate reform act that passed the Senate this week but may not see House action until next year, there have been no major BIA legislative initiatives.

He only recently began work as chair of a White House panel on Indian economic development, and remained proud of a summit he held on the issue in September. Yet the goal of producing 100,000 jobs for Native Americans won't be guided by McCaleb.

An effort he started a year ago on energy has not produced any substantial proposals. Same for a sacred site working group he reinvigorated earlier this year but which has not met with any regularity.

McCaleb has yet to make a concrete effort to rewrite a set of regulations governing how the Indian land base, which lost 90 million acres due to federal policies. He rescinded them a year ago amid tribal complaints.

He also reopened debate on the way the BIA interacts with local and state governments, which are often at odds with tribes, regarding casino developments. The issue has fallen by the wayside even though he held back changes a year ago.

The BIA is going through major reforms in other areas as well. Under the president's No Child Left Behind Act, education programs are getting a scrubbing they probably have never seen before. Homeland security, law enforcement, infrastructure, federal recognition and Alaska Native issues are increasingly becoming bigger issues at the BIA.

McCaleb, in a lengthy conversation with Indianz.Com shortly after he took office, refused to be judged personally for any initiatives he might take. "Whether I'm perceived as a success or not is really not material," he responded in July 2001.

"What is material is that in this administration we can, through policy, appropriation, cheerleading, how ever, make things better, to advance the economic and educational agenda for Indian people," he said. "If, at the end of four years, we haven't moved the ball any, then I probably should have been out fishing."

Today on Indianz.Com:
McCaleb resigning from BIA (11/22)

Relevant Documents:
McCaleb resigning from BIA (11/22) | Secretary Norton Statement (11/22)

Selected Neal McCaleb Stories:
Conference panel addresses land-into-trust (11/04)
McCaleb delivers aggressive recognition plan (10/03)
Sparks fly at trust reform meeting (9/27)
Norton aides silent on sacred sites (7/18)
BIA drops privatization push (05/21)
Doing more with less at the BIA (03/26)
Tribes push action on sacred sites (3/21)
Focus on trust reform leaves estate on sideline (03/12)
McCaleb reopens controversial gaming debate (1/2)
From the top, a gamble in trust (12/7)
McCaleb-ordered shutdown 'hurting tribes' (12/7)
McCaleb doubts opposition to BIA overhaul (12/4)
Bush administration rescinds land regulations (11/9)
McCaleb tussles with tribal leaders over roads (11/8)
Chinook recognition faces reversal under McCaleb (10/3)
McCaleb reverses recognition decisions (9/28)
McCaleb opposes changes in trust management (6/18)
Smooth sailing expected for McCaleb today (6/13)
Gover's 'activist' legacy escapes McCaleb (6/13)
McCaleb breezes through confirmation hearing (6/14)
McCaleb endorses BIA on recognition (6/14)