White House asked to bring DOI to the table
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SHUNNED: Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe Chairman Ron Allen at the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C. February 24, 2003. Photo © NSM.
The winter meeting of the nation's largest inter-tribal organization opened in Washington, D.C., on Monday without the active participation of the Department of Interior.

Attendees of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) session weren't ready to label the snub as a full-blown boycott. But it was taken as an insult by key tribal leaders who said they were being shunned by the department.

"The DOI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency with the most trust responsibility, is not here," said NCAI President Tex Hall in an interview. "I think that's terrible. That's simply unacceptable."

In the past two years alone, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason and former Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb have spoken to NCAI. But for the first time in recent history, no top DOI and BIA officials are on this week's agenda, which includes appearances by more than two dozen Cabinet secretaries, high-level administration officials and Congressional leaders.

Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington and past president of NCAI, called the situation "disturbing." The Bush administration wouldn't dare avoid the National Governor's Association meeting going on across town, he said, urging Ruben Barrales, a White House official, to intervene.

"They have basically broken off their relationship with us," said Allen, a Republican, of Interior officials. "I personally don't appreciate it."

Acting BIA head Aurene Martin and deputy commissioner Terry Virden are attending a previously-scheduled retreat in Phoenix, Arizona. The agency will instead be represented by Teresa Rosier, a mid-level political appointee. She is scheduled to speak today.

Before she left yesterday morning, Martin held a staff meeting to caution against unauthorized visits to the NCAI meeting, according to attendees. Her directive was taken as a BIA "boycott" by one while another acknowledged it was highly unusual.

In separate interviews, Hall and Allen said the department appeared to be retaliating against NCAI for the organization's trust reform efforts. Hall said tribal leaders want to restart talks by holding a government-wide summit but are disappointed that their requests for meetings have gone unanswered.

"We're not going to wait very long," said Hall, who supported Allen's call for White House action.

Allen said the department was making a "scapegoat" of NCAI, blaming tribal leaders for "leaking confidential information" to attorneys working for the Cobell trust fund case. "I don't buy that," he said.

"I was asking the White House to intervene to get them off the dime," he added. "They're procrastinating."

Keith Harper, an attorney for the Cobell litigation, agreed. "DOI has never cooperated," he said yesterday. "They'll look for any excuse."

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