Artman resigns from BIA after a year on the job

After a little more than a year on the job, assistant secretary Carl Artman on Monday announced his resignation as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Artman, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, did not give a reason for leaving. His letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne cited "many accomplishments" that he said he achieved since taking over the BIA in March 2007.

"I believe at the end of this administration, the work we have done within Indian Affairs will leave not just a legacy, but an infrastructure upon which American Indians and Alaska Natives can build to secure their governmental, cultural and economic futures," Artman wrote.

With May 23 as his last day on the job, Artman becomes the third assistant secretary to quit the BIA during the Bush administration. His predecessors left under clouds of litigation and amid questions about their leadership abilities.

The frequent upheavals have made tribal leaders and members of Congress worried about the future of the agency that is supposed to serve more than 560 tribal governments and more than 2 million Native Americans. Before Artman came on board, the BIA went without an assistant secretary for more than two years.

"We ... approved your nomination after that position had been vacant for over two years, which was shameful in my judgment," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee at a hearing last Thursday when Artman testified.

"I'm glad you're there. We got you there," Dorgan said, just as some rumors began circulating last week that Artman was going to resign.

Nedra Darling, a spokesperson for the BIA, did not know who will take over the duties of assistant secretary. She said a decision probably won't come until Artman leaves, eight months before a new president arrives with a new leadership team.

The next in line for the post, at least in an acting capacity, would appear to be Majel Russell, a member of the Crow Tribe of Montana who serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary at the BIA. But she has not kept a permanent office in Washington, D.C., preferring instead to travel back and forth from Montana.

Kempthorne could end up turning to Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department. He was delegated all of the duties of the assistant secretary after the resignation of entrepreneur Dave Anderson, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe Indians from Wisconsin, in February 2005.

Anderson, the founder of the Famous Dave's chain of barbecue restaurants, barely lasted a year in the post. He resigned when he said he didn't receive enough support for his proposals from subordinates -- most of whom he didn't hire -- or from higher-level political appointees at Interior.

Litigation ended the career of Neal McCaleb, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma who was the first assistant secretary under President Bush. He left in December 2006 after he said he felt immense pressure for being held in contempt of court as part of the Cobell Indian trust fund lawsuit.

Artman was no stranger to controversy either. Two of the "accomplishments" he cited in his resignation letter were among his most criticized actions in Indian Country.

The first was an initiative to modernize the BIA. Tribal leaders complained that they weren't consulted about the idea and even after Artman attempted to smooth relations, they questioned the wisdom of starting such a huge undertaking so late in the administration.

The second affected the way the BIA handles the land-into-trust process. Artman said he instituted "drastic improvements" that have reduced the backlog of applications, which at one point he put at more than 1,300 before revising it to a much lower figure.

Amid the change, Artman issued guidelines in January that make it nearly impossible for tribes to acquire land away from their existing reservations. He didn't consult tribes before he made the new policy, which is being challenged as part of a lawsuit brought by the St. Croix Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians from Wisconsin.

In his resignation letter, Artman, an attorney and former business executive, didn't state what he plans to do after leaving the BIA. Darling said he was traveling yesterday and unavailable for comment.

Prior to being nominated for the assistant secretary post, Artman served as associate solicitor for Indian Affairs at Interior.

Relevant Documents:
Resignation Letter (April 28, 2008)

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