FROM THE ARCHIVE

McCaleb named to Indian Affairs post

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APRIL 18, 2001

In what appears to be record speed for any administration, President George W. Bush on Tuesday announced his intention to nominate Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Neal McCaleb as Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs.

"I'm honored and humbled by President Bush's confidence in considering me for a position of service to the Indian community," said McCaleb in a statement provided to Indianz.Com. "I hope to be a part of the effort to improve the quality of life for every American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian."

McCaleb was one of a number of candidates in consideration for the position. The list included tribal heavyweights like United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) executive director Tim Martin and Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe (Wisconsin) Chairman Gaiashkibos. Even fellow Chickasaw Nation member Tom Cole, former chief of staff for the Republican National Committee, was up for the job.

But McCaleb beat out the pack and emerged yesterday as Bush's Indian Country point man. And although he doesn't have the type of experience tribal leaders admired in other contenders, the 65-year-old McCaleb is no stranger to Indian issues or the political arena he is poised to enter.

McCaleb began his career in public affairs in 1967, serving on Oklahoma's Indian Affairs Commission until 1972. That year, President Richard Nixon appointed him to the National Council on Indian Opportunity, where he watched the creation of the American Indian National Bank and worked alongside recognized leaders like Betty Mae Jumper, first woman chief of the Seminole Nation of Florida.

After leaving the council in 1974, McCaleb took a stab at Oklahoma politics and won a seat in the State House of Representatives. He remained there for four terms and was the Republican Floor leader from 1978 to 1982.

The experience didn't help him win the Republican primary in Oklahoma's race for Governor, though. He lost the GOP nomination, but the defeat didn't lead to a departure from political service and President Ronald Reagan in 1983 named him to the Commission on Indian Reservation Economies.

Years of experience as president and chief executive of his own engineering and construction firm helped McCaleb land the appointment. McCaleb and Associates advised and assisted tribes in Oklahoma and elsewhere on real estate projects.

But McCaleb and fellow commission members, including former Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Ross Swimmer, soon ran into trouble. Directed by Reagan to assess dismal economic conditions in Indian Country, they were slammed for a report they authored recommending abrogation of sovereign immunity, absorption of tribal courts into the federal system, and calling on tribes to make "a radical break with the past dependency on the federal government."

Tribal leaders throughout the nation banded together and rejected the commission's recommendations. The National Tribal Chairman's Council said it "would lead to a termination of the special status of Indian tribes and seriously affect their sovereignty and jurisdiction over their reservation lands."

Most of the report never made it far, thanks to the outcry. Swimmer eventually went on to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency he once said should be abolished and the one which McCaleb is set to run.

Controversies aside, McCaleb continued on his political path, eventually becoming Oklahoma's first Secretary of Transportation under then Governor Henry Bellmon in 1987. Current Governor Frank Keating in 1995 reappointed him to the position, which he will vacate upon successful entrance into the Department of Interior.

Secretary Gale Norton issued a brief statement yesterday, praising McCaleb's credentials. "Neal McCaleb will bring a unique blend of skills, experience and background that will serve him well as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs," she said.

As Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Senator Ben Nighthose Campbell (R-Colo.) will oversee the confirmation hearings. Campbell staffers yesterday said the Senator was on the road and unavailable for comment.

Acting Assistant Secretary James McDivitt is expected to return to his position as a deputy assistant within the BIA.

Quick Bio:
Neal McCaleb: Biographical Sketch (4/18)

Statements, Announcements on McCaleb:
Neal McCaleb Accepts Nomination (4/17)
Gale Norton on Neal McCaleb (4/17)
Chickasaw Gov. Anoatubby on Neal McCaleb (4/17)
Oklahoma Gov. Keating on Neal McCaleb (4/17)
President Bush's Announcement (4/17)

Relevant Links:
Neal McCaleb, Oklahoma Department of Transportation - http://www.okladot.state.ok.us/secyg.htm
The Chickasaw Nation - http://www.chickasaw.net

Related Stories:
Another Chickasaw up for BIA job (4/9)
It pays to be Bush's friend (4/4)
Industry insider named to Interior (3/30)
BIA candidate raked in dough (3/12)
Energy pal named to Interior post (3/9)
BIA office move questioned (2/13)
GOP dark horse appears BIA favorite (2/7)