Bush officials to face Indian Country judge
Facebook Twitter Email

A busy week lies ahead for Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and the Bush administration, as they face critical tribal leaders and a skeptical federal judge for the first time since announcing a major overhaul of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But in spite of the growing pressure over a plan to strip the BIA of its core responsibilities and parallel court proceedings that threaten to unravel the government's arguably weak hold over the individual Indian trust, Norton won't be devoting much direct attention to either in the coming days, according to her department.

Norton turned down a speaking engagement at the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) months ago, said a spokesperson. So instead, she is sending her second-in-command, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb to discuss the reorganization.

And due to already busy schedule, don't count on Norton to appear in federal court to face U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in person either, a representative said. Indeed, Interior officials as of press time hadn't decided if they would send anyone at all to a highly-anticipated hearing, except possibly for Solicitor Bill Myers, who has declined to comment on his participation in the ongoing debacle.

The seemingly hands-off approach could serve to derail Norton's already controversial proposition even further. When Lamberth last month pressed the government to tell him who is in charge of trust reform, a newly appointed defense team didn't say it was Norton.

After two weeks of waiting, Griles in a sworn testimonial answered that question -- and it still isn't Norton. That may leave Lamberth, who has publicly doubted how the official who is supposed to be the trustee for $3.1 billion in tribal and individual Indian assets can fight off contempt charges, unconvinced about Norton's commitment to a trust she is clinging onto even if she can't fix it.

Tribal leaders displeased with Norton's handling of the issue are looking for answers, too, but they might not find them any time soon, much less this week. Along with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), a key lawmaker on Indian issues and the chairman of the committee that oversaw Norton's confirmation, tribal leaders want Norton to show a heightened level of involvement.

"We believe that the Secretary needs to engage in discussions personally and not just send her top senior officials," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington and a vice president of NCAI.

"If she's prioritizing national parks and fish and wildlife above her responsibility to Indian communities, then she is not doing her job," he added.

Beyond a "Dear Tribal Leader" letter she sent out by fax, e-mail and postal service on Thanksgiving eve and a public radio appearance, Norton has not spoken directly to her personal participation. BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling said a Federal Register notice announcing nationwide meetings was in the works but couldn't provide a time-frame or details.

"The Secretary is very serious about taking input from tribes," said Darling. "I think she's making every effort possible to attend a consultation session."

Darling also acknowledged Norton and McCaleb misspoke last week during last week's broadcast of Native America Calling. Although Norton cited the Bush administration's presence at NCAI as ongoing proof of its outreach, and McCaleb flat out stated the convention would be a "formal consultation" session, that is not the case, said Darling.

Griles and McCaleb will only be giving a "presentation" about the proposed Bureau of Trust Assets Management, said Darling, and will not engage in a formal process as laid out by executive order and department policy. "This presentation will kick off more awareness," said Darling.

The discussion takes place on Wednesday during two sessions, said Darling. NCAI officials in Spokane, Washington, yesterday released an updated agenda to reflect the change.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Lamberth will hold two proceedings on the Individual Indian Money (IIM) lawsuit, including a newly scheduled hearing on Wednesday to consider computer security. Another hearing will take place on Friday to address contempt charges and the possibility of appointing a receiver, or outside caretaker, for the accounts of an estimated 300,000 American Indians whose assets have been so mismanaged the government cannot guarantee any balance is correct.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Norton faces big week on trust (11/26)
Norton's BIA overhaul blasted (11/26)
Interior changes mind on consultation (11/26)
Editorial: Give Norton plan a chance (11/26)
Norton's attorney decries unfairness (11/26)
Norton's choice raises questions (11/26)

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

Related Stories:
Judge holds secret hearing (11/23)
Indian Country slams 'sham' consultation (11/21)
Top trust fund official questioned (11/21)
No Thanksgiving for Indian Country (11/21)
Domenici praises Norton's 'bold move' (11/21)
BIA reorganization a focus of NCAI (11/21)
Reagan's Indian chief is back (11/20)
McCaleb faces Indian preference question (11/20)
Norton defends overhaul of BIA (11/20)
Norton promises fast start (11/20)
Developing: Swimmer tapped by Bush administration (11/19)
Few answers on BIA overhaul (11/19)
Norton challenges trust fund receiver (11/19)
Gover: Indian Country had it coming (11/19)
BIA reorganization focus of radio show (11/19)
Norton defends quarterly reports (11/19)
Norton's 'runaway train' denounced (11/17)
Norton stripping BIA of trust duties (11/16)
Tribal leaders in uproar over proposal (11/16)
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)