Feathers ruffled in and out of Indian Country
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Reaction to Special Trustee Tom Slonaker's departure from the Department of Interior was mixed on Tuesday, an indication of a volatile and stymied role he played during his two years of federal service.

While some tribal leaders expressed surprise with the announcement, others did not flinch. Slonaker's growing dissonance with the Bush administration, and the conflict's effect on Indian Country, meant an ouster was inevitable, they pointed out.

"It was eventually going to come about," said Ron Allen, chairman of Washington's Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe. "We, the tribes, and the administration had a fundamental difference of opinion with Slonaker on how to resolve the trust reform process."

Others, however, disagreed with Secretary Gale Norton's latest move. "I was shocked," said National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall and co-chair of a tribal-federal task force on trust reform.

"I think he did the best he could. Maybe he called it like it was and people didn't like it," he added. "But that's his job. Or that was his job."

But everyone agreed Slonaker's honesty was his downfall. His superiors in the Clinton and Bush administrations weren't immune from his criticism, though it was largely muted and only surfaced through a class action lawsuit affecting more than 500,000 American Indians whose trust assets have gone unaccounted for more than a century.

Slonaker and his aides often challenged the department's response to the litigation. They supported a full historical accounting of Indian funds despite Clinton administration opposition and provided testimony against Norton in her recent contempt trial.

Slonaker also stepped on many a tribal leader's toes by attempting to bring what he called more accountability at the reservation level. "It seemed to me there were no consequences for those people -- or at least some of the people -- to get the job done," he said in an interview yesterday.

This tactic turned off leaders within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency closely tied to tribal governments, but also some segments of Indian Country. The Hoopa Valley Tribe of California, for example, recently passed a resolution calling for Slonaker's ouster. Tribal leaders from all over the nation also endorsed a department-wide reorganization that scaled back his already-limited powers.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), during a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing yesterday, challenged efforts to shuffle the bureaucratic mess. "What in the world does that have to do with settling these claims that go back 100 years?" he said.

After hearing of Slonaker's exit, McCain was equally incensed. "I'm disappointed that a second Special Trustee resigned because successive administrations refuse to empower that position with any real authority," he said in a statement.

Slonaker came to the department in as troubled circumstances as he leaves it. His predecessor, Paul Homan, quit in early 1999 after then-Secretary Bruce Babbitt reduced his authority and reassigned his senior aide.

Yet like Slonaker's reign, the effect of his departure is contested. "I think it sets us back," said Hall, "but I don't think it's going to stop us from accomplishing our goals."

Today on Indianz.Com:
Slonaker cites White House pressure (7/31)

Relevant Documents:
Tom Slonaker Statement (7/30) | Gale Norton Statement (7/30) | Neal McCaleb Statement (7/30) | McCain Statement (7/30) | Tom Slonaker Biography (OST)

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

Related Stories:
Slonaker leaves Bush administration (7/30)