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Chertoff: Tohono O'odham chairman got it wrong

WASHINGTON - Tohono O'odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. has insisted that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff turned down requests to meet after waiving federal laws affecting the reservation. But Chertoff has a different side of the story.

Norris told the Arizona Daily Star in June that Chertoff declined to meet with him in person, despite five formal requests. The chairman, who won his position just over a year ago, is also angry that on a recent trip to southwestern Arizona, Chertoff visited Lukeville and Sasabe, two border towns, but didn't touch base on the reservation.

''It's a total disrespect for the sovereign authority that this nation has and enjoys with the United States government,'' Norris told the newspaper.

Chertoff readily admits that he hasn't had time to meet with Norris during his relatively short tenure, but he has been taken aback by the way the chairman described relations between the department and the tribe.

''I was surprised,'' Chertoff told Indian Country Today in an interview. ''I met with [Norris'] predecessor, so we have definitely engaged with the tribal leadership.''

Indeed, he has met personally with the former leader of the tribe, Vivian Juan-Saunders. DHS Deputy Secretary Paul Schneider has also invited Norris to meetings within the last few months, but the chairman chose not to attend. DHS officials have also met regularly - at least monthly - with officials from the tribe.

DHS officials said that Chertoff's intention was not to avoid Norris during his brief visit to southwestern Arizona in February, but to meet with the family of fallen Border Patrol agent Luis Aguilar on a tight schedule.

''It would be really unfortunate if someone took away the idea that we've been disrespectful to the Tohono O'odham tribal leadership,'' Chertoff said regarding Norris' statements. ''We met with their leadership twice. It may have been Norris' predecessor, but we have engaged with them.

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''Obviously, I'm always dealing with scheduling issues, particularly in terms of traveling all over the country - we have to weigh and balance these demands. But I'm more than happy to meet with tribal leaders. The question is finding a convenient time to do it.''

Norris told ICT via e-mail that he has not had time to respond to repeated requests for clarification regarding his statements. But Matt Smith, a spokesman for the chairman, said that Chertoff has been ''utterly disrespectful'' of Norris.

Norris' anger stems from Chertoff's waiver this spring of several laws, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, in an effort to speed the building of the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.

NAGPRA, a federal law passed in 1990, created a legal process for federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return American Indian human remains and cultural items to their respective tribes or lineal descendants.

Smith said Norris first learned of the NAGPRA waiver in a newspaper account in April.

But Homeland Security spokesman Laura Keehner said the tribe has been in the loop on what's been going on for over a year.

''All of our construction projects are in concert with - and have already been approved by - the Tohono O'odham Nation,'' Keehner said. ''We have had an open-door policy with them for quite a while.''

The message apparently hasn't reached Norris, who has said it would be over his ''dead body'' that Homeland Security will be allowed to build a pedestrian fence on his reservation.