Norton provides little assurances on BIA overhaul
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Despite proposing major changes that will affect hundreds of tribes and the lives of more than a million American Indians and Alaska Natives, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and her top officials have provided surprisingly few details to tribal leaders, affected stakeholders and even her employees, all of whom are growing steadily restless with the lack of information from the Bush administration.

By moving to strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its core responsibilities, Norton is changing the very nature of the tribal-federal relationship that has developed over the past one hundred years, Through numerous treaties, laws, court decisions and executive orders, Indian Country has come to view the BIA, its Assistant Secretary and, in turn, the Interior Secretary, as its voice within a sea of federal bureaucracy that is at times hostile and dismissive of tribal needs.

And while the proposal to create a new bureau won't eliminate the Interior oversight, nor will it extinguish the trust relationship, it has raised numerous legal, policy and logistical questions for which the administration has failed -- understandably, in some respects -- to provide concrete responses.

Granted, the reorganization set forth by Norton in court documents and a press announcement last week is in its infancy. Such a "dramatic change" -- in the words of Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb and Special Trustee Tom Slonaker, who essentially agreed to give up their authority in a short memo sent to their boss -- is bound to raise serious questions.

At the same time, however, Norton has deliberately kept the proposal under wraps, unveiling it only to a court under the cover of darkness, and to the public only because she promised to explain what she told the court. Her strategy, fashioned in response to a lawsuit for which she is veering on a collision course with contempt, may prove to be the plan's downfall.

Tribal leaders first gained concrete awareness of the overhaul at a self-governance conference held in Washington state last week. On Wednesday, just hours before the government sent a series of documents to a federal court, McCaleb and Slonaker sat on a panel on trust reform and said their boss was going to create the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management to handle tribal and individual trusts.

Their remarks, which Interior officials and government lawyers say formed the start of the consultation process with tribes, sparked immediate reaction from those in attendance. They bombarded the Bush officials with questions but found no answers, tribal leaders said.

"There was a lot of dialogue and questions, but neither McCaleb nor Tom [Slonaker] could answer," said one tribal leader who attended the session. "We asked: 'What do you mean by trust assets? How would [the new agency] interface with BIA? How would tribes negotiate for self-government compacts?'"

"They didn't know," recalled the participant. "They didn't have substantive answers."

Almost simultaneously, the Interior's main offices three time zones away in Washington, D.C., began receiving vague queries about the proposal. Interior officials dismissed the calls, later admitting privately that Norton had shelved plans to announce the changes on Wednesday.

Still, later in the day, McCaleb, his deputy Wayne Smith and his legal counsel Aurene Martin, a former staff member for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, met with tribal leaders -- this time members of the advisory committee to the conference. According to participants, the proposal was just a small part of the agenda.

Yet when the meeting was over, committee members walked away with the understanding the reorganization would not be a "unilateral decision." When Norton finally made the announcement the next morning, however, it appeared -- to their dismay -- to be just that.

But tribal leaders weren't the only ones taken affront. Immediately after the lunch hour on Thursday, Interior officials held a session with local employees and union members to discuss the realignment of authority.

According to some participants, the question-and-answer briefing didn't give them too many assurances. For many -- especially those in the field for whom the trickle-down of information has been slow -- concerns about hiring freezes, budget requests and, perhaps most importantly to the 80 to 90 percent of BIA employees of Native heritage, the Indian preference policy have not been sufficiently addressed by the leadership.

Combined with her department's policy of refusing to comment on her actions until the day, or night, her lawyers tell a court about them, Norton faces significant obstacles even if Indian Country eventually warms up to her plan. Since she has failed to provide even a basic timetable, she risks alienating tribal leaders who are already irked by what the National Congress of American Indians is calling a "wholesale lack of consultation" on her behalf.

With a court hearing set for November 30, Norton's defense lawyers may very well provide answers to some, but inevitably not all, questions. The Interior sole spokesperson for the reorganization, John Wright, has been unable to comment on almost every aspect of the proposed changes and said it will be weeks before there is a dedicated person who will field relevant questions.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Norton challenges trust fund receiver (11/19)
Gover: Indian Country had it coming (11/19)
Norton defends quarterly reports (11/19)
BIA reorganization focus of radio show (11/19)

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

Related Stories:
Norton stripping BIA of trust duties (11/16)
Tribal leaders in uproar over proposal (11/16)
Norton's 'runaway train' denounced (11/17)
Top Democrat calls for hearings (11/16)
Bush officials to speak at NCAI (11/16)
Norton files contempt defense (11/16)
Q&A on BIA Reorganization (11/16)
Developing: BIA stripped of trust duties (11/15)
Interior might need year on new agency (11/15)
Gover: Indian Country now 'weaker' (11/15)