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Artman hopes to address backlogs as head of BIA

With less than two years to make his mark, the new head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs said he would work to reduce backlogs at the beleaguered agency.

Carl Artman, a member of the Oneida Nation, made his first appearance on the Native America Calling program on Wednesday. He addressed listeners from the radio show's studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he participated in a BIA conference and met with tribal leaders and employees.

In response to questions about his priorities for the next 18 months or so, Artman said he wants to reduce backlogs that have affected tribes and tribal members. He hopes to make small changes that will make big impacts in Indian Country.

"A couple of areas that I want to hit in terms of backlogs are not going to be earth-shattering, but they are meaningful to individual Indians out there," Artman said.

Two major areas of concern are probate and land-into-trust. "We have probates out there that haven't been done, and represent every single decade going all the way back to 1890," Artman said. "This has to get done."

Artman said the BIA has a backlog of about 1,300 land-into-trust applications. That's down from the 2,000-plus figure that he cited at a National Congress of American Indians conference in late February but a significant number nonetheless.

"We're already starting to work on a number of ways -- getting in more personnel, looking at the processes, looking at the regulations," he told listeners.

Finally, Artman plans to address another backlog that's not necessarily on everyone's radar screen. He said 800 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests haven't been fulfilled, a situation that should "never happen again."

Overcoming a lengthy delay in the confirmation process, Artman took office as assistant secretary in early March. But since he was serving as the associate solicitor for Indian affairs at the Interior Department, he has been closely involved with the BIA for more than a year.

After entrepreneur Dave Anderson resigned from the BIA two years ago, Artman said he jumped at the chance to serve Indian Country. "When this opportunity was offered to me, it was something I didn't think about," he said.

"The answer was an immediate yes because I think that I can leave something behind ... that's more positive," he added.

Addressing other issues of concern, Artman said the Interior Department is taking a closer look at off-reservation gaming. He said the role a local community plays in the process will have a major impact on the Section 20 regulations that are being finalized this year.

Additionally, the BIA plans to develop new regulations for the "151" land-into-trust process. Artman didn't give a timeframe for this proposal.

Artman also said the BIA will continue to be involved in an election controversy within the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Members of the tribe recently voted to amend their constitution to deny citizenship to the descendants of former slaves.

Although the matter is being litigated, Artman recited a history of the tribe and said the Freedmen, as the former slaves were known, were made citizens of the tribe by a post-Civil War treaty. He said changes to the constitution that remove the Freedmen, as well as other changes going back to 2003, have not been approved by the BIA as required by law.

"The way we view it is that we still need to be involved in this somehow," he said.

Prior to joining the Bush administration, Artman worked in the private sector and for the Oneida Nation as its chief counsel and previously as its lobbyist. In his tribal role, he said the meetings he feared the most were not with tribal officials, politicians or business executives, but with elders.

"That was a scary one," he recalled. "Because they are the ones that can tell you, 'Carl, we know your Aunt Loretta, we know your mother, we know your grandmother. What would they say about this?'"

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