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Norton departs for Indian trust retreat

Last Updated: 8:21 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

There was a flurry of activity, and a wave of dissent, at a Washington, D.C.-area hotel this evening as Secretary of Interior Gale Norton left for what she called an "intensive" weekend working session with tribal leaders.

The destination was Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where Norton and a national task force of tribal leaders are set to address concerns over her proposed reorganization of Indian trust. Opposed unanimously by Indian Country, the task force was formed to develop alternatives to the creation of the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM).

Norton said she was looking forward to sitting down with the task force to hammer out proposals that have been circulating since BITAM was announced in mid-November. There are nearly a dozen alternatives that have been suggested, almost all of which support reforming the Bureau of Indian Affairs without "dismantling" what tribes feel are its most sacred duties.

But some tribal leaders questioned whether the weekend would accomplish anything. Jonathan Windy Boy, a council member of the Chippewa-Cree Nation of Montana, threatened to boycott the workgroup on behalf of a dozen large tribes whose land holdings represent nearly 70 percent of the Indian estate.

Windy Boy said Norton had not provided enough information on the status of trust reform for the session to be productive. He also said limiting the meeting to the 24 members of the task force plus their 12 alternates meant key legal and technical advisors would be left out.

Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb tried to assuage the concerns and said a large meeting would only hamper progress. "The last thing we need at this meeting is a gallery," he said. "People should not feel they are posturing for a gallery."

But when Navajo Nation council member Erwin Keeswood later told Norton during a question and answer session that he felt slighted, McCaleb's temper escalated. "The Secretary has made an historic effort to meet with the tribes," he said.

In an interview conducted before he was set to leave for the retreat, McCaleb said he was not trying to scold anyone. "I certainly was not asking for their gratitude," he said.

Should any tribal leader chose not to attend, McCaleb said: "I think it will be a missed opportunity."

National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall expressed concerns about the potential walkout. "I think it can hurt the task force," he said. "We have to stay united."

As the evening wore on, Windy Boy was being encouraged to attend the meeting. Keeswood could not be reached for comment.

Norton plans to spend the night with tribal leaders but has other business to attend to Saturday, said Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesperson Nedra Darling. Along with McCaleb, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and trust transition director Ross Swimmer will attend the retreat.

"We are committed and listening and learning from the tribes," Griles told reporters.

After the retreat is complete, tribal leaders will be regrouping on Sunday morning in preparation for a number of trust events next week. Included is Wednesday's hearing before the House Resources Committee, at which Norton will testify.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Trust system takes center stage in contempt (2/1)
Norton renews push on private trust data (2/1)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -