At BIA McCaleb takes on the system
Facebook Twitter Email
FRIDAY, JULY 20, 2001

Running the Bureau of Indian Affairs is largely a balancing act. While the agency has a mandate to improve the quality of life for American Indians and Alaska Natives, it can't always say yes to tribal leaders, whose wants and wishes are many.

The BIA can't always say yes to local and state governments, either, whose input must also be considered on certain matters, even when it conflicts with tribal desires. So when the priorities of the administration in charge, whose goals may not always be in step with Native America, are added to the mix, it's easy to see why leading the BIA is one of the toughest jobs in federal government.

Even though he's yet to make any major decisions affecting Indian Country, no one knows this more than Neal McCaleb, the eighth Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.

Consider gaming. It's a $10 billion industry that has enabled tribes to assume more control over their affairs, recover land lost to failed policies, build new schools and homes and improve the lives of Indians and non-Indians alike.

But McCaleb freely admits that his religious beliefs conflict with what has been the only means of economic salvation for a number of once-impoverished tribes.

"I'm a member of a fundamentalist church that takes a dim view of gaming," says the 66-year-old member of the Chickasaw Nation in an interview with Indianz.Com.

As Assistant Secretary, McCaleb, of course, can't oppose gaming. If he did, he'd be ignoring one of the many duties of the job. He'd also anger tribal leaders.

In order to resolve the conflict between his personal conviction and his public persona, he had to ask himself a question: "Do I need to make some kind of moralistic judgment for the tribes?"

"Absolutely not," he answers. "That's what parentalism is and that's what we're trying to get away from. So I had to come to an accommodation. The accommodation is: I believe in economic development."

"Gaming is an important economic card in the deck -- no pun intended -- and it has made significant economic difference for tribes," he says.

As the man who oversees more than 550 tribes and some 1.4 million enrolled tribal members, accommodation is quickly becoming one of McCaleb's standard policies. It becomes evident as he makes known his views on a number of issues, carefully considering the impact his words will have on Indian Country.

Take sovereignty. Just hours earlier, tribal leaders and Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) lamented on what they termed a downturn in tribal authority. The Supreme Court's recent decisions, said Inouye, are "a real departure from sovereign rights. If this trend continues, Indian Country will no longer be Indian Country."

McCaleb, on the other hand, notes with awe the past 30 years of Indian history. When he sat on an economic advisory panel to President Richard Nixon, sovereignty wasn't something you could talk about, much less see in action, he said.

"We didn't have any sovereignty in the 1970s," he recalls. "That was just a wishful dream."

Since then, he says, the visions of tribal leaders who pushed the boundaries of sovereignty have come true. "It's given me faith in the system," he proclaims.

Now, as it turns out, McCaleb is the system. And over the next four years or so, he'll be trying to improve the system, working side-by-side with tribes to promote and educate the rest of the country about sovereignty. Sovereignty, he says, doesn't only benefit Indians, it can also benefit non-Indians.

"That's one of my biggest jobs with the rest of the United States," he concludes, "is to get them to understand sovereignty."

Related Stories:
McCaleb pushes role as evangelist (7/19)