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Contempt trial least of Norton's worries

It should come as no surprise to anyone that a federal judge has ordered Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb stand trial to face contempt charges for their handling of the trust fund debacle.

Since taking helm at the Department of Interior, both have failed to significantly move forward an accounting of the funds owed to more than 300,000 American Indians. Although arguably a difficult task, the shirking of such a basic duty alone is sufficient to warrant fines and possible jail time for the pair even if mismanagement started more than 100 years ago.

But it's also clear Norton, McCaleb and other top officials -- including Solicitor Bill Myers, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason -- must stand trial before Indian Country for keeping more than 500 tribes and a million Native Americans in the dark regarding their recent actions to dismantle the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

While the judge's proceedings and his future rulings and orders will no doubt shed light on their activities, Norton and her top aides must also answer to the people whom their decisions affect the most. Every tribal leader, American Indian and Alaska Native deserves no less than a full explanation for their latest transgressions.

So far, answers out of the Bush leadership have been few. And when responses have come, they have been inconsistent, confusing and misleading.

Despite Norton's repeated insistence she will consider tribal views about a new agency to handle trust affairs, she has only scheduled one formal consultation meeting and is cutting off comments in mid-January. This, as Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation chairman Tex Hall so rightly put it, is a "slap in the face."

And while it is encouraging Norton plans to attend the December 13 session in Albuquerque, New Mexico, her attempt to fast-track the proposal during the busy holiday season is evidence she doesn't take her sacred treaty and constitutional obligations to Indian Country seriously.

With duties stretching well beyond reservation borders, it is understandable Norton needs guidance on her responsibilities. The judge's trial will hopefully make her more aware of them.

But McCaleb, as head of the BIA and as a tribal member, should know better. Yet in his dealings with tribal leaders this week at a national gathering, he has shown disdain for the judicial process and a lack of respect.

When challenged to explain his actions, McCaleb instead shifted blame to the court. Along with Griles, who tells the judge one thing but tribal leaders another, he has failed to show a level of trust and integrity his high position requires.

This is government at its worst. Inflicted upon the most disadvantaged segment of the population at a time when unity is of the greatest importance, it is also an embarrassment for the entire nation.

Indian Country deserves better treatment. It is up to Norton and the top leadership to provide it.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Norton ordered to trial for 'fraud' (11/29)
Tribal leaders reject BIA overhaul (11/29)