FROM THE ARCHIVE

Tribal leaders have advice for McCaleb

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APRIL 18, 2001

Neal McCaleb must be open, accessible, and responsive to the growing and complex needs of Indian Country if he intends to succeed as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal leaders and advocates said on Tuesday.

But he also faces some tough battles ahead, they warned, given the increased scrutiny that has been placed on the position in recent years. From funding to trust lands to crime, McCaleb will inherit a laundry list of politically sensitive issues should he confirmed as Assistant Secretary.

Ron Allen, Chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington and Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians, urged McCaleb to make the first move in establishing a relationship with tribal leaders. McCaleb's experience with Oklahoma's tribes is helpful, said Allen, but each region, from Alaska to the Plains to California, has different challenges.

"I think what [McCaleb] needs to do is reach out to tribal leadership immediately," said Allen. "He needs to work with national organizations like the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Gaming Association as well as leadership from regional inter-tribal organizations."

Susan Masten, Chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe of California and President of NCAI, placed government-to-government consultation as one of the top priorities for McCaleb. Decisions affecting Indian Country need to involve tribes as soon as the process begins, said Masten.

"We should be included in the planning phases so the end result truly meets the need," she said. "I'm looking forward to working closely with him on a true partnership in coordination with the consultation policies that tribal leaders developed in the last year."

With the President's proposed budget on the minds of tribal leaders, Masten added that McCaleb -- like any other member of the new administration -- needs a crash course on funding priorities. Indian programs have always been historically underfunded, she said, and appropriations should be increased and sustained in order to address decades of neglect.

"As always, when we get a new Assistant Secretary there is a need for an educating of the individual as to what are the issues in Indian Country," said Masten. "At least [McCaleb] is familiar with Indian Country issues in relationship to his experience with the state of Oklahoma. I think that can be helpful for us."

In a statement provided to Indianz.Com, McCaleb yesterday referred to one of the Department of Interior's most scrutinized programs when he said "a clear need" exists for "reconciliation of individual Indian Trust accounts." After years of criticism by Congress and the courts, the Interior is still struggling to reform the trust system after more than one hundreds years of financial mismanagement.

Nonetheless, McCaleb's words pleased Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker who is the lead plaintiff in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit.

"I am encouraged by the fact that [McCaleb] mentioned this as something he is going to jump right on because it certainly needs 100 percent attention," responded Cobell. But she said that he should "make the first move" in order to "regain the trust" of Indian account holders.

Kevin Gover, former Assistant Secretary under President Clinton, has some simple advice for the man who would replace him. Still the subject of criticism for decisions he made during his tenure, Gover said to "never let an attack go unchallenged."

"If you stand there and take the beating, it won't stop," said Gover. "My advice is: answer every attack and answer it immediately."

Despite McCaleb's credentials, Gover agreed with tribal leaders that being at the Interior is a challenging career move. "Experience elsewhere in no way prepares you for the BIA," asserted Gover.

"He has my complete support."

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
National Indian Gaming Association - http://www.indiangaming.org

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