Lack of BIA nominee puzzles Indian Country
Thursday, August 7, 2003

It's a businessman from Oklahoma. It's someone without direct Indian affairs experience. It's a Neal McCaleb type. It's a Chippewa tribal member.

Eight months after Neal McCaleb stepped down as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the White House has yet to name a replacement. The delay has fueled speculation and rumor about the identity of a potential nominee, but also has renewed concerns that Indian Country ranks low on the Bush administration's priority list.

As the BIA undergoes a reorganization and with more and more time and resources being dedicated to trust reform, tribal leaders and Indian advocates say the Department of Interior is at a critical juncture. That's why, to them, it's all the more curious that there hasn't been a new assistant secretary.

"I believe [the delay] does have a negative impact," said John Gonzales, governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo in northern New Mexico. "Going this long without having anyone nominated is puzzling and I have no idea why it has taken this long to announce a nominee."

Aurene Martin, an attorney and former GOP Senate aide, has been serving as acting assistant secretary since January. While there have not been significant complaints about her performance, there is no push to place her in permanent status either.

"I don't know far away the department is in picking the new assistant secretary [but] I just want to tell you doing a very fine job in fulfilling a difficult job," Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), Martin's former boss, said at a Senate hearing last month.

Running the BIA is often regarded as one of the most challenging jobs in federal government. From trust to gaming to federal recognition, the agency has come under increasing scrutiny from the courts, Congress and the public.

That's why Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, believes the lack of a nominee is detrimental to Indian Country. "I think the ship needs a captain, a permanent captain," he said. "Otherwise we're going to get differing viewpoints, conflicting information, lack of communication and lack of consultation. That's kind of where we're at right now. It's not the best of times for the BIA and the Department of Interior in its relationship with tribes."

Even officials at other federal agencies that work with BIA are have given up, citing disarray as a result of the ongoing reorganization. "We can't find someone to work with at BIA," said one Bush political appointee.

Nedra Darling, a BIA spokesperson, insisted that the leadership void is not affecting business. "Our programs are running every day." she said . "We're getting ready to get kids back in school at the end of the month. Our acting assistant secretary has taken on the responsibility as the assistant secretary."

"We're full force ahead," she added. "We're still getting other things done."

McCaleb, an engineer by trade from Oklahoma, stepped down last December, citing pressure from the litigation over Indian trust funds. "That should not have happened," Don Gray, a trust lawyer in private practice, told a Senate committee last last week. "That moral cost is no joke -- it's high."

Although McCaleb was eventually cleared of contempt charges, they clearly took a toll on him that looms over a new nominee. Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund (NARF) attorney for the case, said a replacement is needed to settle the long-running feud over how much is owed to Indian account holders throughout the country.

"To the extent that an assistant secretary can aid in that process," he said, "we think it's important to get somebody in place."

There have been eight assistant secretaries since the position was first elevated to that level in the late 1970s. Besides McCaleb, only one has resigned prematurely.

Only on Indianz.Com:
McCaleb named to Indian Affairs post (April 18, 2001)
Reagan returns with new administration (April 18, 2001)
Tribal leaders have advice for McCaleb (April 18, 2001)
McCaleb pushes role as evangelist (July 19, 2001)
At BIA, McCaleb takes on the system (July 20, 2001)
Neal McCaleb in Review (July 23, 2001)

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

Related Stories:
BIA's Martin breaks unofficial boycott of NCAI (06/17)
DOI begins second transition period on Indian affairs (04/29)
Bunker mentality evident in trust reform fight (04/22)
White House asked to bring DOI to the table (02/25)
McCaleb latest in long line of DOI departures (11/25)
McCaleb changed, yes, but little else did (11/22)
McCaleb resigning from BIA (11/22)
How to Mismanage Indian Trust Assets Without Really Trying (08/07)
Feathers ruffled in and out of Indian Country (07/31)
Key trust reform player leaving BIA (02/28)

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