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Norton's resignation exposes Indian leadership void

Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced her resignation on Friday, a move that highlights the leadership void at the department with primary responsibility for Indian affairs.

Although Norton was a constant figure in the Bush administration, having served five years in the Cabinet, her tenure was marked by two resignations at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After Neal McCaleb resigned in November 2002, it took the agency nearly a year to find a replacement.

In the case of Dave Anderson, who left in February 2005, the wait has become even longer. Interior Department officials, pressed by tribes about the vacancy, have no idea when the position might be filled.

"I don't know the answer," said associate deputy secretary Jim Cason earlier this month at the National Congress of American Indians winter session in Washington. "We have interviewed a fairly large amount of candidates."

Just how many? "I lost count at about 20," Cason told tribal leaders.

The high number of potential candidates and the drawn-out process for selecting a nominee indicates the White House isn't happy with the choices. Less than two years remain before a new administration comes in and makes even more changes.

But the lack of an assistant secretary isn't the only upheaval the BIA has seen under the Bush administration. Since 2002, the agency underwent a major reorganization that Indian Country opposed, suffered a series of budget cuts as more money has gone to the Office of Special Trustee and is currently restructuring its education office despite tribal complaints.

Several key positions at the BIA have been lost in the shuffle. The deputy commissioner resigned in early 2002 before the powerful position was outright eliminated by a reorganization and replaced by a director's post. Two different people have held that post since 2003.

The principal deputy assistant secretary, another position created by the reorganization, resigned several months after Anderson arrived in what insiders characterized as a power clash. That post also remains vacant.

The situation leaves the BIA without a visible Indian presence, something that hasn't happened since the dawn of the self-determination in the late 1970s. "To top it all off, the top two people in the Bureau of Indian Affairs are non-Indians," said Native American Rights Fund attorney Keith Harper, emphasizing the word "Indian."

Cason, the non-Indian deputy associate secretary, has been overseeing the BIA since Anderson left. But in order to avoid a potential violation of federal law that places certain limits on the use of "acting" officers, he has been "temporarily redelegate[d] all functions, duties, and responsibilities" of the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs.

Norton quietly signed a secretarial order extending Cason's service on August 11, 2005.

The status of Mike Olsen, a non-Indian attorney who was placed in the principal deputy secretary position 18 months ago, was also quietly changed by the order. He had taken on certain duties, including land-into-trust and gaming, due to Anderson's recusal on those matters.

But the secretarial order "redelegates" those functions to Cason, giving off the appearance that Olsen is no longer serving in an "acting" capacity in order to avoid a potential violation of federal law.

Another change in the BIA resulted last month when Brian Burns, the chief information officer who was brought in by McCaleb back in the summer of 2002, was transferred to another technology job at Interior. The CIO post had been created by the reorganization.

Another new reorganization post, the assistant secretary for policy and economic development remains unfilled more than three years after it was created. George Skibine, the director of the Office of Indian Gaming Management, has been serving in an "acting" capacity.

Norton is leaving at the end of the month. She said she plans to return to private life and spend more time in the West. She was raised in Colorado and served as the state's attorney general for two terms.

Secretarial Orders:
No. 3529 Amendmed - Temporary Redelegation of Authority of the Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs | No. 3259 - Temporary Redelegation of Authority of the Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs | No. 3525 - Authorities Delegated to the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs

Resignation Letter:
Norton to Bush (March 9, 2006)

News Release:
Secretary Norton Announces Departure from Interior (DOI 3/10)

Relevant Links:
Interior Department -