McCaleb doubts opposition to BIA overhaul
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Perplexing tribal leaders and their advocates, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb on Monday doubted the enormous opposition his department's controversial reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has sparked in Indian Country.

In a unanimous action, the nation's largest tribal organization called on the Department of Interior to "withdraw" a proposal to strip the BIA of its trust responsibilities and hand them to a new agency. But McCaleb voiced his own interpretation of the resolution the National Congress of American Indians approved at its annual convention in Spokane, Washington, last week.

"I think if you read the resolution that they passed, it doesn't say that," said McCaleb during a brief appearance on the radio program Native America Calling. "What they were overwhelmingly opposed to was the fact that they weren't consulted in advance adequately before the concept of the program was unveiled."

McCaleb only has part of the story right, said Tex Hall, the newly elected president of NCAI, after the program. While he and other tribal leaders acknowledged lack of consultation factored into their dissent, they were baffled that opposition to the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management could be blatantly misinterpreted.

"I am a little bit confused about his contention that it was only about consultation but not the BITAM," Hall said of the document that gained unanimous consent. "The resolution that was finally adopted also included for NCAI to take any methods to stop any appropriations. That's how much tribes were in opposition to BITAM."

The resolution was "a clear message that there is no maybe, or might" regarding the proposed bureau, said Hall. "This is 100 percent opposition."

McCaleb's conflicting view is just one of several missteps that have been cited of the Bush administration since Secretary Gale Norton announced the overhaul in response to criticism from a federal judge overseeing a class action lawsuit affecting individual Indian assets. His remarks come as the Interior is set to hold its first formal consultation meeting with tribal leaders, which Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles said in a sworn testimonial nearly three weeks ago had already begun.

McCaleb admitted his department could have handled the situation better. But he reiterated his belief that U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth has set an aggressive schedule on the Individual Indian Money (IIM) lawsuit.

"There's no question that the announcement of the proposal was poorly handled," McCaleb said, "but it was driven by a calendar that we couldn't control."

McCaleb said the consultation sessions will "remedy" tribal complaints. "We're setting up seven different consultation meetings across the United States, from Anchorage to Washington, D.C., and Palm Springs to Minneapolis," he said.

The first will take place December 13 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although Norton has promised to attend, she may not be able to do so since Lamberth, acting on a government request, will start a contempt trial to address numerous instances of government misconduct on December 10.

Included in the witness list is Hall, who also serves as chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota. "Clearly, the judge needs to know there is unanimous support, make no doubt about it, from Indian Country," he said. "From small tribes to medium tribes to large land-based tribes, all of Indian Country is in support of a resolution opposed to BITAM."

The outcome of the trial could not only result in sanctions for Norton and McCaleb but removal of the IIM trust from their authority. Lamberth last week said he would rule on the request to place the trust in the hands of a receiver at the conclusion of a contempt trial.

Tribal leaders and attorneys representing the account holders believe appointment of a receiver would kill the Interior's plans to create the new agency. "The IIM trust is clearly in crisis," said Native American Rights Fund attorney Keith Harper on the program yesterday.

"A different decision-maker would be put in place," said Harper. "Somebody who, unlike the Secretary, will not make decisions based on short-term political interest but will ultimately and finally make decisions on what is the best management decisions for the trust."

Get the Resolution:
NCAI Resolution (11/28)

Relevant Links:
Native America Calling -
National Congress of American Indians -
Office of the Special Trustee -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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