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After Norton, lowered expectations at Interior

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In a C-SPAN television appearance after announcing her resignation, Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton mused that she had begun her tenure with a program of four "C's" but when she ended, they had been condensed to two. The fate of her buzzwords -- "cooperation," "consultation" and the like -- could stand as a metaphor for her six years in office. Whatever she had as a program, especially on Indian affairs, for better or worse contracted and stalled in the face of the administration's inertia.

Environmentalists will remonstrate that she displayed energy in pushing bad policies. Oil and mineral leasing on public lands is way up. Her "Healthy Forests" initiative would open old-growth forests to logging. The National Park Service is refocusing on commercial recreation. Snowmobilers are bothering wildlife. This might be so, but we don't see much point in demonizing a pleasant lady who has had a rough few years and who was neither as bad nor as good as she might have wished to be.

On Indian issues, always our primary concern, Norton occasionally talked a good game but almost never delivered. We think she was well-intentioned, but her record should be a caution to her likely successor, Dirk Kempthorne. In his previous career as U.S. senator and governor of Idaho, Kempthorne seems to have avoided displays of hostility to Native interests. (There are more than enough politicians out there who haven't.) The Nez Perce in Idaho say he has worked well with them. But the obstacles in Washington, D.C., are very high to conducting a decent Indian policy. In the absence of concentrated attention, they might be almost insurmountable.

The first trap that engulfed Norton was the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit. The new secretary can look forward to replacing her in the heading as the lead defendant, just as when she replaced Bruce Babbitt. He can also anticipate an almost inevitable contempt citation from Judge Royce C. Lamberth unless he somehow manages to change the administration's legal strategy. We could never understand how Norton accepted the obstructionism that has marked the government's response to this suit, unless she had little control over a strategy dictated by the Justice Department. If any private person were involved in a suit where the judge kept issuing contempt citations over legal tactics, one would think the first step would be to fire the lawyers. (The second and third steps might be to sue them for malpractice and grieve them to their bar associations.)

Norton made a number of efforts to improve management of the Individual Indian Money trust accounts and overcome the absurd fractionation of payments that was the end result of the vicious Allotment Act of 1887 -- which is at the heart of the problem. But her most publicized initiative wound up looking like a reshuffling of boxes on the BIA organization chart (with some mid-level pay raises).

The change in leadership provides a chance for a toting-up of the changes that have been made and maybe a push for an equitable settlement. It's not reassuring, however, to hear that Interior's supervision of all its oil and gas leasing has been deteriorating, since this is how the trust money vanished.

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Norton made other unkept promises to the tribes that Kempthorne should honor. In a September 2002 interview with Indian Country Today, she talked about giving the tribes a greater role in managing their forests and in competing for "stewardship contracts" on other public lands. It sounded good, but we haven't seen much follow-up. That same year, she made a well-publicized trip with then-Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to the Klamath River basin to try to settle the notorious "water war." In the course of her "charm offensive," she promised the Klamath Indian tribes to restore forest land that was stolen in the allotment period and mismanaged ever since. They might still be talking, but the land has not yet been restored.

Overall, it's hard to avoid the impression that Norton and the Bush administration simply lost interest in Indians after the 2004 election. Witness the leadership void at the BIA after the departure of Dave Anderson, or earlier. We grant that the office of assistant Interior secretary of Indian Affairs might be the single-worst job in the federal government, but there is still something wrong when it has been vacant for at least a third of Norton's tenure. Indian voices are markedly silent at the highest levels of Indian policy-making. And it's showing.

The anti-Indian campaign is growing more strident and vicious, but Indian country has the strong sense that no one in the administration is truly committed to protecting Native interests. We hear that Norton was appropriately frosty when Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal tried to engage in a bit of illegal ex parte lobbying on recognition decisions. But the lower levels show every sign of having caved in to his sort of political pressure. The reversals of recognition for New England tribes over the past year, starting with the Nipmuc Nation decision, have been nothing less than an insult to our intelligence. They changed the rules mid-stream, applied impossible standards of evidence and showed such a malignant predisposition that we look forward to the forthcoming Administrative Procedures Act lawsuits.

Compounding this revival of the "termination" spirit, the leading figure on Indian Affairs, Associate Deputy Interior Secretary James Cason has shown an arrogance in his personal dealings with the tribes worthy of the days of the Indian agents. It's not simply a case of cultural insensitivity. His behavior has been bad manners in any language.

This leadership vacuum has opened the way to suspicions of the worst sort of influence peddling. And yes, our own manners are not so good that we will leave Jack Abramoff unmentioned. His impact on Interior has yet to be fully explored. But this notorious scandal is not the only one to flare on Norton's watch. The full story of her tenure would have to explain the abrupt dismissal of Wayne Smith, the BIA's one-time No. 2 man; the curious concern of Stephen Griles over Louisiana Indian casinos; the dinner parties thrown by Italia Federici; the frustration of the Gun Lake Band and other incidents still below the surface.

In the absence of a strong Indian advocate (Yes, we miss Kevin Gover), the host of lawyers, hustlers and casino sharpies now circling Indian country will do its best to corrupt that part of Interior's bureaucracy that has not been browbeaten and cowed by the vociferous anti-tribal lobby.

We don't think things are yet at this pass. Able people have been rising unscathed through the BIA's ranks. Some of the most breathless charges against it, such as the wanton granting of tribal recognition, have simply been false. But leadership at the top has been slipping. The most urgent task that Norton has left for Kempthorne in Indian policy is to rebuild a stable cadre of senior leaders drawn from Indian country and responsive to its needs.