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Kempthorne takes helm at Interior Department

For the first time since the start of the Bush administration five years ago, there's a new face at the top of the Interior Department.

Dirk Kempthorne began his first day of work as the 49th Interior Secretary on Tuesday. The former governor of Idaho promised to work closely with tribes, states and other stakeholders as he leads a department responsible for millions of acres of Indian and public lands.

"Throughout my public service, I have worked to reach out to both sides of the aisle, to different interests and to different viewpoints," said Kempthorne, who was confirmed unanimously by the Senate on Friday. "As Secretary, I want to help foster that same collaborative approach on Interior issues."

Kempthorne spent his first day reaching out to the people affected by the decisions he will be make. He invited the leaders of the National Congress of American Indians to a meeting in his office in Washington.

"I am impressed with Secretary Kempthorne that his first priority is to establish a relationship with tribal leaders," said Joe Garcia, the president of NCAI and the governor of Ohkay Owingeh, a tribe in New Mexico.

Garcia used the face-to-face time to stress four critical Indian Country priorities: public safety, education, economic development and settlement of the Cobell trust fund case. "Our meeting set the stage for a strong continuing relationship," he said.

Jefferson Keel, the first vice president of NCAI and the lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, also attended. He called the meeting "a good start" and said Kempthorne is very interested in settling Cobell, addressing land trust issues and promoting Indian education.

"Tribal leaders need to be included if we are going to find real solutions that will work in Indian Country," said Keel. "I think Secretary Kempthorne gets that, and he showed it by meeting with us today."

Kempthorne hopes to broaden his tribal outreach by attending NCAI's upcoming midyear session in Sault St. Marie, Michigan. "Tribes want the Secretary to be an advocate and defender of tribal rights," said Jackie Johnson, the executive director of NCAI.

Yesterday's meeting is believed to be the first time a sitting Interior secretary has met with tribal leaders on the first day on the job. Gale Norton, Kempthorne's predecessor, waited a couple of weeks before making her first public appearance at NCAI's winter session back in 2001.

But as the Bush administration progressed, Norton's relationship with Indian Country became strained due to her handling of the trust fund debacle. She stopped attending the group's meetings and subordinates at the Bureau of Indian Affars imposed an unofficial boycott of a recent NCAI winter session. She rarely spoke at other tribal events before stepping down in March.

Kempthorne appears ready to chart a fresh course, not just with tribes but with other groups affected by Interior. Along with reaching out to stakeholders, he visited the National Mall and the Washington Monument on Tuesday despite nursing a broken foot.

NCAI's midyear session takes place at the Kewadin Hotel and Casino in Sault St. Marie from June 19-21. An exact date for Kempthorne's appearance is not yet known. His schedule may undergo some changes due to his medical condition.

Relevant Links:
Interior Department -
National Congress of American Indians -

White House Announcement:
President Bush Nominates Dirk Kempthorne as Interior Secretary (March 16, 2006)