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Clock ticking to replace BIA chief

Tribal leaders discuss hopes after Carl Artman

WASHINGTON - As Indian leaders come to terms with the unexpected resignation of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Carl J. Artman, they are now working overtime to ensure the Interior Department doesn't muck up its next appointment to head the BIA.

Top officials with the National Congress of American Indians met May 14 with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne regarding their concerns.

''This is an important position for Indian country,'' Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of NCAI, said in an interview soon after the meeting. ''We wanted to make sure that the secretary heard from us.''

Kempthorne is charged in the short term with tapping an acting replacement to fill Artman's shoes. President George W. Bush would have to officially nominate a person to be confirmed by Congress, or make an appointment while Congress is in recess.

It took about two years to get Artman confirmed, so many observers are skeptical that a new head could go beyond acting status with only eight months left in the Bush administration. Artman announced his resignation in late April after serving for slightly more than a year as assistant secretary; he hasn't given a concrete reason for his departure.

Kempthorne and the White House could also choose to wait out the clock, taking time to find a replacement. That would mean the many tribes waiting for BIA action on trust applications would be in limbo, and they would likely have to wait many months into the next presidential administration to see progress.

Johnson said she and other leaders have made it quite clear to Kempthorne that a ''qualified, knowledgeable Native American'' should be picked to fill the position.

''We need to have somebody who knows about the programs and services within the department,'' Johnson said, adding that it's important not to ''lose time'' and face having an appointee who would have a steep learning curve.

Johnson said Kempthorne was receptive and made it clear that he is interested in having a Native person fill the spot. He told NCAI leaders that he expects to make a choice that Indian country will feel comfortable about.

Kempthorne did not provide a timeline for when he would make a decision.

''These things take time,'' said Nedra Darling, a spokesman for the BIA, adding that Kempthorne is currently in the process of looking for a successor to Artman.

''We urged him to have an expeditious appointment,'' Johnson said, noting that many BIA issues are in play for tribes right now surrounding land trust and other issues. ''We don't want to lose momentum.''

NCAI leaders believe Majel Russell, an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe of Montana and Artman's principal deputy assistant secretary, would be a good candidate to step in. Russell, however, currently works from Montana and would have to relocate to the nation's capital to take on the duty.

''We made [Kempthorne] know that we would be comfortable, if [Russell] were to be his choice,'' Johnson said.

Russell is currently traveling in Europe and could not be reached for comment on whether she would accept the appointment, if it was offered.

Some Indian leaders have expressed doubt that Russell would be offered the position because they believe Artman's agreement to allow her to work from Montana may have caused pressure on him from those higher up in Interior's command - pressure that possibly played into his decision to resign. Artman has not publicly stated whether any pressure from his bosses involving Russell played into his decision.

Johnson believes she would take the position, if the Bush administration supported her appointment.

When asked if she thought there is any possibility that Kempthorne would appoint a non-Indian to the post, Johnson said it was a ''moot point because Kempthorne readily said that he was going to look for a Native American.''

Other than Russell, some Indian leaders have pointed to Ross Swimmer, the former leader of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma who currently serves as Special Trustee for American Indians at Interior, as a possible successor to Artman.

Phillip E. Thompson, a Washington-based lawyer who represents several tribes, said some tribal leaders view Swimmer as someone who is ''up to speed'' on BIA issues and could perhaps make the most of the next eight months. Thompson is a former solicitor with Interior.

It's not likely, however, that Swimmer could take control without controversy. As the leader of the BIA under President Ronald Reagan from 1985 to 1989, he proposed eliminating the bureau altogether; and his decisions regarding trust responsibility have been questioned by some tribes in the past.

Another name that's been mentioned to fill the position in the short term is James Cason, a non-Indian Bush political appointee, who previously served as head of the BIA from 2005 to 2007. His tenure was marked by much displeasure from tribes involving his positions on federal recognition policy. He currently serves in the Interior as assistant secretary for Policy, Management and Budget.

Artman's last day on the job is expected to be May 23.