McCaleb pushes role as evangelist
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Spending time with Neal McCaleb is kind of like being in a religious revivalist meeting of sorts, watching as the new head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs tackles some of the most important issues facing American Indians and Alaska Natives today with equal parts excitement, faith, optimism and charm. In other words, it's likely to make one feel good or perhaps jump for joy at some point.

Case in point: yesterday's hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, his first Congressional appearance since being confirmed late last month. His focus was on good tribal government practices as he delivered short, but pointed testimony on what he believes are the keys to successful economic development in Indian Country.

But it wasn't necessarily his views that impressed committee members and the audience. And it wasn't his responses to their questions, either, some of which -- by his own admission -- "danced" around the issue.

It was what he didn't say which drew praise. After he concluded his testimony, Neal McCaleb sat.

He didn't get up and return to his fourth-floor offices at the Department of Interior, where phone messages, meetings and a host of business awaited his input.

Instead, Neal McCaleb sat. And listened. To tribal leaders who shared their stories of success. To private sector representatives who contributed their knowledge on the topic.

Neal McCaleb's silence was dramatic enough that Senator Dan Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the committee, found it necessary to comment. "In all my years of sitting on this committee, this is the first time to see an Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs sitting through testimony of tribal leaders," he said.

The audience applauded. Welcome to Washington, Mr. McCaleb.

The cheery atmosphere which has surrounded McCaleb since his confirmation hearing last month, in many ways, belies the problems he faces at the BIA. And the eager attitude one sees and hears in McCaleb could be easily explained by the fact that he's been in office just two weeks.

But there's something else there, which becomes apparent as he explains his role and purpose as head of an agency responsible for improving the lives and welfare of tribal people from Maine to New Mexico. It comes out as he remarks without occasion of the passing of his mother at an early age. "I needed a mother substitute," he says as he explains why he enjoyed school so much. "My second-grade teacher kind of became that."

And, later, the near loss of his private engineering practice amid a downturn in Oklahoma's economy. "I've ridden the economic rollercoaster. I almost went broke in 1986," he states plainly.

It comes out in the way he describes why, after 30 years of private and public service, the 66-year old member of the Chickasaw Nation has chosen instead not to retire but to make a contribution to the community and run the BIA. "I couldn't face getting up in the morning without nothing really useful to do," he says.

For, if his predecessor Kevin Gover was an activist, as he is apt to describe himself, Neal McCaleb, in his own words, is an evangelist.

He's not a preacher, though. And later, upon some reflection, he says he's more a "cheerleader" than anything else. In either case, he believes his focus is clear: to evangelize, cheerlead or otherwise promote economic opportunity for Native Americans.

Like he hinted earlier, fulfilling the goal is a lot like a dance in which he balances respecting the views of tribal leaders with his own. He rejects "paternalistic" oversight of tribes as he recounts the past century of failed Indian policies. Allotment. Relocation. Termination.

Yet in this current era of self-determination, he says tribal leaders need to be more pro-active in developing stable government institutions, encouraging good leadership and creating independent court systems. "A lot of people are talking about it," he adds, "but not enough people are doing it."

But if pushing the economy seems a short-sighted goal, it is. Because McCaleb knows money is not the answer to every problem Indian Country faces.

"A lot of people have created wealth thinking that would give them a sense of self-worth, self-achievement, he responds. "But it doesn't."

Yet he believes economic success can go a long way to reducing alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide and other social ills which are part of the "social dysfunction" of Native America.

"If a person has a job and they feel useful and they are supporting themselves and they are supporting their community, they feel good when they get out of bed," he says. "I do."

So for the next four years -- at least, one might hope -- McCaleb will be waking up doing something for his community: the more than 550 tribes and some 1.4 million enrolled tribal members whose lives are in his hands, so to speak. Its won't be easy, he knows, and the watchful eyes of Indian Country will spend the next four years judging him.

"Whether I'm perceived as a success or not is really not material," he concludes. "What is material is that in this administration we can, through policy, appropriation, cheerleading, how ever, make things better, to advance the economic and educational agenda for Indian people."

"If, at the end of four years, we haven't moved the ball any, then I probably should have been out fishing," he says.

Neal McCaleb is the eighth Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.