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BIA chief quits unexpectedly

WASHINGTON - After serving for just over a year as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Carl J. Artman is leaving the Bush administration. His resignation comes as a surprise to many Indian leaders and U.S. government officials, but some who know him said increasing frustrations with the bureaucracy of the BIA played a role in his early exit.

An enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, Artman was confirmed by the U.S. Senate March 5, 2007, to head the BIA. He previously served as the department;s associate solicitor for Indian Affairs since February 2006.

''I believe at the end of this administration, the work we have done within Indian affairs will leave not just a legacy, but an infrastructure upon which American Indian and Alaska Natives can build to secure their governmental, cultural and economic futures,'' Artman wrote to Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in a letter announcing his resignation.

''Throughout your tenure, I have appreciated your able insight as we have worked to address important issues in Indian country,'' Kempthorne responded in a letter to Artman.

Artman's official duties included carrying out Interior's trust responsibilities involving the management of tribal and individual Indian trust lands and assets, and promoting the self-determination and economic self-sufficiency of the nation's federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. He was the tenth assistant secretary of Indian Affairs to be confirmed since the position was established by Congress in the 1970s.

Artman is most often cited for starting the department's Indian Affairs Modernization Initiative, which served to enhance communications between tribal leaders and Interior on a number of trust responsibility issues.

His resignation stunned many Indian leaders and U.S. government officials, especially given the lengthy amount of time it took Artman to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

When Artman was confirmed in 2007, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said the job should have been filled two years previously, but legislative holdups made that goal untenable. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., a vocal critic of the BIA and off-reservation gaming, ultimately registered the sole dissenting vote against Artman's nomination.

''It's a disappointment and setback for Indian country that Assistant Secretary Artman will be resigning,'' Dorgan said in a statement. ''I am afraid we will not make enough progress on the issues affecting the Native American community, from law enforcement issues to economic development. Mr. Artman took consultation with tribal leaders seriously, and I hope that the future or acting assistant secretary will meaningfully consult with tribal leaders before acting on matters that [affect] our Native American communities.''

W. Ron Allen, secretary of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, said he was ''very disappointed'' to learn of Artman's resignation.

''He truly has been one of our most effective and knowledgeable assistant secretaries,'' Allen said. ''Carl was always forthright with the tribes and was making a significant difference with the BIA and its responsibilities to the tribes.''

Leaders who know Artman expected that he might resign come fall, as the Bush administration tapered to a close. His early departure signaled to some that he may have had ongoing frustrations with BIA bureaucracy.

''I sense that there were things bothering Carl - perhaps just not being able to achieve what he wanted to achieve,'' said Gerald Danforth, chairman of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. Prior to joining the federal government, Artman worked for the Oneida Tribe as director of federal affairs and as chief legal counsel.

''I suspect he would have liked to see changes within the BIA that would streamline the processes,'' Danforth said. ''His intentions were right, but how they were unfolding within the BIA, I don't know. I just sensed a certain frustration that things weren't moving forward as quickly as he believed they could be.''

Many Indian leaders are skeptical that Interior will be able to soon find a replacement that was as well-versed on Indian issues as Artman, especially before the close of the Bush administration.

''Because he has worked in Indian country, he had a clear understanding of what the tribes are trying to accomplish with respect to self-determination, self-governance and self-reliance,'' Allen said. ''It is hard to have an impact when you are working on a short stint in the system, but because he knows how it works, he was able to make decisions to address a lot of policy matters.''

It's expected by some insiders that Majel Russell, an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe of Montana and Artman's principal deputy assistant secretary, may be tapped to fill out the remainder of his term. That would likely mean she would have to relocate to Washington, D.C., from her current home in Montana.

Artman's last day on the job is expected to be May 23. It's unknown at this point where he will land, but Danforth said an invitation is open for him to return to the Oneida Nation. He did not respond to requests for comment.