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Tribal leaders question changes in BIA leadership

PROMOTION: Mike Olsen, the incoming principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.
A non-Indian attorney who arrived at the Bureau of Indian Affairs a little over a year ago has been promoted to the agency's highest position in charge of federal recognition and gaming-related matters.

Mike Olsen's quick rise to the top of the BIA's ranks was announced yesterday. In a statement, assistant secretary Dave Anderson said the former Congressional staffer would start handling some of his new duties immediately.

"Mike's determination to help Native people and his dedication as a public servant has made him my choice for this new assignment," Anderson said.

Olsen replaces Aurene Martin, who quietly resigned as principal deputy assistant secretary earlier this month. Martin, who has been with the BIA since 2001, will leave the agency on September 10 for a job in the private sector. She interviewed with several Washington, D.C., law firms recently but the BIA has not disclosed where she will be working.

In the statement, Anderson sought to downplay suggestions that the shakeup was the result of an ouster of aides whose loyalty to his administration had been questioned. He said he held Martin in "high regard" and that he was "impressed" with her work at the BIA.

But tribal leaders are concerned that the latest changes are a sign of deeper problems within the agency. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, said he was disappointed to learn that Martin was leaving so close to the end of President George W. Bush's first term.

"It sends a message of 'who's in charge' and what is it that they think they are going to try to accomplish?" Allen said in an interview. "Their mission is not clear."

Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, was not pleased that a non-Indian will be taking such a high-profile role. "There's a lot to learn and there's not much time," he said. "I think it would have been more advantageous to have an American Indian or Alaska Native to take the position because they would have had the knowledge of Indian Country in terms of the protocols of working with tribal governments."

Hall said Anderson, in a private phone conversation yesterday, assured him that Olsen's background will be helpful for the job. Olsen was previously the director of the Office of Native American and Insular Affairs for the House Resources Committee. He joined the BIA as Martin's "counselor" in May 2003.

Allen believes that Olsen is "very knowledgeable" in terms of the issues facing Indian Country. "His shortcoming is his understanding of the bureaucracy and how you mobilize it, or cause it to be effective," he said.

Earlier this year, Anderson removed himself from all recognition, gaming and gaming-related land acquisition matters, citing his past involvement in the Indian gaming industry. He said he was acting to shield the BIA from conflicts-of-interest accusations but the move drew fire even among those who had supported him.

"It looks to me he's recused himself of about half of the responsibilities he was appointed to do," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee. "I don't know why he wanted the job, frankly, if he's going to recuse himself from so much of the things I think that his responsibility is to do."

Martin took over all those duties but critics questioned the delegation of powers because the principal deputy assistant secretary position is not subject to Senate confirmation. Olsen, in his counselor role, was not subject to Congressional oversight either.