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BIA seeks input on 'modernization' initiative


The Bureau of Indian Affairs is moving forward with talks to modernize the agency after encountering a "rocky start," assistant secretary Carl Artman said on Tuesday.

The BIA began a series of meetings last week aimed at soliciting input from Indian Country on how to improve the agency that serves over 500 tribes and more than 2 million Native Americans. Challenges include budget constraints, outdated technology and an aging workforce.

But the first session in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on September 4 wasn't much of a discussion, Artman acknowledged. Some of the tribal leaders who were present felt the BIA was already moving to implement plans without their approval.

"They determined they didn't really want to participate in the meeting itself," Artman told Indianz.Com in an interview. "That being said, I fairly understand where they were coming from."

Artman said he wants to assure tribe that there are no plans on the table. His meetings -- which continue through the end of the month -- are only the first step in an ongoing dialog with Indian Country.

"Before I got confirmed and sworn into this position I told tribal leaders probably what we need to have first is communication," Artman said. "I promised I would bring them in at the earliest stage possible and that's exactly what we're doing right now. We're making good on that promise."

After the first week of meetings, Artman came back in Washington, D.C., to deal with some pressing issues. But as his deputies continue the road tour, he is encouraging tribal leaders to make their views known.

"We're making it really clear out there that this is a dialog," said Majel Russell, the BIA's new principal deputy assistant secretary. "It's a dialog driven by the tribes on how we maintain effective government-to-government consultation and how we support tribal sovereignty and self-determination."

The issues being discussed weigh heavily on that relationship, the BIA officials said. Limited federal resources, a lack of Internet connectivity and an employee force with large numbers nearing retirement will affect how the agency provides services.

"The fact is nearly 40% of the current Indian Affairs workforce will be eligible for retirement within the next 5 years," Artman wrote in a letter to tribes in August. "This represents a considerable potential loss of experience and knowledge for the organization, and it is time for us to plan how we will address this loss of experience and knowledge."

The talks are Artman's first major foray into Indian Country since being confirmed in March. They come as he is making some changes in his leadership team in Washington.

Effective this coming Monday, Jerry Gidner will be the new director of the BIA. He is replacing Pat Ragsdale, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, who will be the new deputy director of law enforcement services.

"Pat's a former police officer," said Artman. "He brings a lot of understanding from the rank-and-file police officers.

Chris Chaney, a member of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, is leaving law enforcement to serve as deputy director for Indian Services, the job Gidner used to hold.

Additionally, Artman has appointed two counselors. One is Sequoyah Simermeyer, who used to work for the National Congress of American Indians, and the other is Andrea Lord, who is on detail from the National Indian Gaming Commission.

"We've got a well developed team here now," Artman said. "I've got no more excuses," he joked.

The modernization meetings end September 28. There is no timeframe on what steps the BIA will take but Artman said it will take about two to three weeks to compile the information and share it with tribes in a "usable" format.

The BIA also plans to give an update on the effort during the National Congress of American Indians annual conference in October and at other tribal meetings. "I do want to be able to continue the conversations," Artman said.

Emphasizing the open nature of the talks, Artman said he has no preconceived notions on where they will go. "Maybe at the end of the day, we're going to hear from the tribes, 'Don't change.'"

"It that's the case, so be it," he said.

Relevant Documents:
Modernization Dialogue (September 2007)

Relevant Links:
Bureau of Indian Affairs - http://www.doi.gov/bureau-indian-affairs.html

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