Commission report may haunt BIA nominee


WASHINGTON - A presidential report issued nearly 20 years ago may come back to haunt a candidate nominated to head up the BIA.

Neal McCaleb, secretary of Transportation for the state of Oklahoma and the nominee for assistant secretary of Interior for Indian affairs, was a member of a commission formed by President Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980s that came under fire for its recommendations. This commission's report, backed by McCaleb, raised serious concerns throughout Indian country at the time that the federal government was looking to limit its responsibilities to tribes and some of the rights of tribal governments.

Issued in November of 1984, the report was the culmination of work completed by the "Presidential Commission on Indian Reservation Economies," a nine-member panel established to advise the president on "what actions should be taken to develop a stronger private sector on federally recognized Indian reservations" and to "reduce the federal presence in Indian affairs."

The panel was comprised of American Indians and non-Indians from the private sector and tribal and federal governments. Robert Robertson, a vice president of Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Ross Swimmer, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and former head of the BIA, were co-chairmen.

McCaleb, then owner of an architectural and engineering firm and a director of Memorial Bank of Oklahoma City, was one of six tribal members, including Swimmer, who served on the commission.

The commission recommended subjecting tribal courts to the authority of the federal court system, limiting a tribe's use of sovereign immunity, replacing the BIA with a new streamlined agency, and including non-tribal members in tribal government votes on taxation. While the report also contained a number of pro-tribal recommendations and suggestions for improving economic conditions on Indian lands, it was these areas which prompted an immediate outcry from tribes across the country when the report was released.

Some of the positive elements included recommendations that tribal governments be reorganized to separate the distinct powers of government, that private industry and American Indian entrepreneurs be encouraged on tribal lands, that banks deal more directly with tribes, and that American Indian lands be exempted from certain federal labor laws to stimulate the hiring of Native workers.

The report included a controversial recommendation that tribal court decisions which involve statutory or constitutional rights be eligible for appeal in the federal courts.

It recommended a new agency be created called the "Indian Trust Services Administration," charged with overseeing trust assets and some obligations, but block-granting funds to tribes with the ultimate intent of allowing tribes to contract for their own services.

In the area of sovereign immunity, the commission recommended that tribal governments enact policies which invoke the defense of sovereign immunity to suit only cases "where trust assets, or trust income not expressly waived, are involved."

It recommended legislation which allows reservation taxes to be determined by referenda, with all reservation residents having a vote, including non-tribal members.

The report became so controversial, Commissioner David Matheson, who was chairman of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, condemned the recommendations, labeling the group as inexperienced and "uninformed."

Matheson said he complained about the report findings before it was to be issued and told other members that tribes would never support its recommendations. He said he would only support the report if changes were made.

"They said that we voted unanimously, but I didn't," Matheson said. "I said I would support the report if they made the changes I requested. When the report was issued, the changes were not there."

Matheson said many of the poor recommendations in the report were the result of a lack of experience in working with tribal governments. He even questioned why some, like Ross Swimmer, would even think of supporting such proposals.

"I don't think they had enough experienced members on the commission,"

Matheson said. "If you become part of a commission like that, and think you know more than tribal governments, then you're wrong. When I hear someone say sovereignty is a problem, I'm concerned. I don't think the report reflected anything the tribal leaders had to say at the hearings."

After the report's release, tribes throughout the country characterized it as a threat to tribal sovereignty and the federal trust relationship. Tribal organizations like the National Congress of American Indians and the National Tribal Chairman's Association were the most outspoken. At the time, Elmer Savilla, executive director of the chairman's association, called it "the most dangerous paper on proposed Indian policy to be written in many years."

On the other side, Neal McCaleb became one of the most outspoken supporters of the report.

"The recommendations are controversial and they are sweeping in nature, so we had expected some not-so-unanimous reaction," McCaleb told the Washington Post in 1985.

McCaleb said that after 150 years of failure, the "federal government is not going to be able to deliver a viable, self-sustaining economy to the reservations." Contacted about his current position on the report, McCaleb's office said the he stands behind his work.

"He is proud of his involvement on the commission," said Brenda Perry, a member of his transportation staff.

While the commission's recommendations came under harsh criticism 20 years ago, it remains to be seen what McCaleb's philosophy is today regarding Indian affairs, tribal sovereignty and the trust relationship.

Asked what he thinks of the possibility of McCaleb becoming head of the BIA, Matheson said he will wait and see how much McCaleb has learned.

"I'd like to give him a chance, but these things need to be communicated to him," Matheson said. "He just needs to learn where tribes stand on these issues."