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BIA head McCaleb winds down tenure

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WASHINGTON - Facing the unending ordeal of the Indian Trust fund lawsuit, Assistant Interior Secretary - Indian Affairs Neal A. McCaleb, 67, announced his decision to retire from public service.

McCaleb, whose 17 months as the Bush administration's top official for Indian programs were consumed in controversies over management of Indian trust funds, has given notice of his intent to retire at the end of the year.

Although no word was available at press time on a successor, speculation in Indian country is focussing on James (Tim) Martin, executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) who was a strong contender the last time around, and Ross Swimmer, director of Interior's Office of Indian Trust Transition and a former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs himself.

"After a long period of prayerful deliberation I have decided the time is right to bring my public service career to a close," said McCaleb in a statement Nov. 21 announcing his decision.

"I began my campaign to build real and lasting economic opportunities for American Indian people as far back as 1967 as a member of Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity. In my current position, I have been disappointed to learn that a contentious and litigious environment obscures the hard work that remains before us. The pathway to improve the quality of life for America's Native people is to create strong economics. We must look to the future by creating new opportunities for Indian-owned businesses and building new markets for their products and services."

"Neal serves as an extremely valuable member of my leadership team, and he will be very difficult to replace," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

During his tenure as head of the BIA, McCaleb's efforts were focused on untangling a troubled trust fund for Indian royalties that has been mismanaged for more than a century.

In September, he and Norton were held in contempt of court by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth for failing to comply with Lamberth's order to fix the trust fund - which manages $500 million a year in oil, gas, mining and timber royalties from Indian lands - and concealing their failure to do so.

"The constraints imposed by ever-present litigation have taken their toll," McCaleb said. "Unfortunately, it [the litigation] has taken first priority in too many activities, thus distracting attention from the other important goals that could provide more long-term benefits for Indian country. Economic development for American Indians and Alaska Natives deserve full-time attention which is not realistic in the current environment."

McCaleb's resignation surprised many in Indian country. Nedra Darling, spokesperson for the BIA, confirmed that McCaleb was reacting to the pressure of the Cobell litigation but added that he wanted to spend more time with his family. She said he would continue to work full-time through December 31, 2002.

A grandfather, McCaleb did not bring his family with him to Washington.

His resignation came right after one of the brighter moments of his tenure, a celebration of National American Indian Heritage Month on November 21, with an observance of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), the nation's only Congressionally-chartered school for American Indian and Alaska Native arts.

"It was a lovely afternoon," said Darling. "No trust fund."