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Earl Devaney: insights on Indian country

WASHINGTON – After 31 years with the Secret Service, Earl E. Devaney moved over to the Environmental Protection Agency and there encountered Indian country and its issues for the first time. In 1999, President Bill Clinton nominated him as inspector general at the Interior Department, charged with investigating its use of taxpayer dollars and human resources. The IG doesn’t investigate crimes of violence but prioritizes corruption, theft, fraud and inefficiency.

In that role, Devaney has come into regular contact with Indian country through the BIA (a branch of Interior), and Washington has heard from him on his findings. His subjects have been faulty BIA and tribal detention facilities, BIA law enforcement, violence in BIA schools, misdeeds among Interior employees at the Minerals Management Service and, coming in December – a report on the potential for violence at “638” grant schools, managed by tribes with federal funds under self-determination agreements with Interior.

His point is always to improve the provision of much-needed services in Indian country through recommendations for reform. “I’m not going to forget Indian country at all. ... I view myself as a friend of Indian peoples and Indian country. I don’t always say it that way, but if you look at the body of work we’ve done here in my tenure.”

It will continue, not only in the December report on 638 schools but in a Royalties Initiative Group in Denver that he has assigned to audit revenue collection from Indian lands – a major departure from the Minerals Management Service’s passive “compliance reviews” of royalty payments from large oil companies, conducted from behind a desk. The last thing oil companies want to hear is a “knock, knock, knock” from his auditors, wanting to look at their books, Devaney said, thumping a side table.

“Do I think there are problems collecting royalties on Indian lands? Yes. Has anyone ever looked at it? No.”

In the likelihood that a new presidential administration in 2009 will install a new cabinet, Devaney – within Interior but independent of it – will meet with the next secretary, advise of his work and the areas that need attention, offer to work positively with the department on fixing problems.

The current Interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, didn’t believe Devaney. But Devaney proved prophetic, and they went on to work together more closely from there. Devaney gives Kempthorne high marks for integrity, responsiveness to problems that predated his tenure and a keen attention to Indian country, especially education in Indian country.

He has told three Interior secretaries what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear, and a probable fourth in 2009 will be able to count on similar service from Devaney. “There’s a certain bureaucratic inertia that settles in ... so if I’m not there shaking things up, it’s probably not going to happen.”

In an interview with Indian Country Today, he provided insights drawn from his investigations and the reception they’ve received on Capitol Hill and among tribes and federal agencies.

On BIA jail facilities

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“My biggest regret as I sit here now, I’m not sure at all that things have improved. ... There seems to be at a number of different levels, both within the BIA, sometimes at the tribally run facilities, a sense that this is not a high priority. If there’s a choice between fixing up a decrepit jail or, Lord knows, a casino, maybe jail facilities don’t rank high up on that list.”

BIA Leadership

“Unfortunately, we’ve had a string of assistant secretaries at BIA whose tenures typically run anywhere from six months to 18 months but not much longer. So that hasn’t been helpful. I think somebody at the head of an organization, setting a tone, having an opportunity to pick his or her own leadership team, ends up making a bureau run better.

“And the BIA is handicapped by a leadership vacuum. That has been apparent since I got here ... nine years [ago]. ... In fairness to the people out in the field, they can’t have counted on consistent leadership and consistent messages being sent from here [Washington]. And so I think that has been a detriment to getting things done. People are always wondering, ‘Well, I know what the last guy or woman said they wanted, but now I’ve got a new person, so I’m going to wait and not do anything until I get that signal.’ That goes on for nine years and the end result is, nothing gets done.

“Now, it’s not fair to say they fail at everything they do. But in terms of setting priorities, that’s a leadership issue.”

Consultation between tribes and federal agencies

“The word ‘consultation’ is certainly in the eye of the beholder. And that’s what I think the problem is. There’s no real definition of what exactly is supposed to happen. There have been attempts to define that. But it seems to me there are loopholes, attendant to things where consultation is required, that you could drive a truck through. And I think it all has to do with your interest in complying with the spirit of that concept.

“So my hope is that a new administration will have the right spirit in mind. ... I think we all know it when we see it, and it’s the spirit in which we engage in it. And whatever administration walks through the door here, I hope they’ll embrace that concept. It’s inherent in the relationship that Interior’s supposed to have with Indian tribes.”

“We have not gone out and done an evaluation of education per se, for a lot reasons. Number one, it is difficult to measure education in Indian country against – it’s unfair actually – to measure it against some other communities that might have more resources and a better situation going in. So I left a little of that to the Education Department. But we have been around education in terms of the safety of facilities, the people that work in the schools, and most recently we’ve done part one already on the issue of school violence in Indian schools. ... The next piece of that, part two if you will, we’re going to look at the 638 grant schools.
“What we’ve found so far is unlike any other school system in America, in any other community or state, we have schools [that] seemingly are unprepared to deal with violence in the school system. Probably not across the board, but frighteningly little has been done in terms of how to identify a problem child ahead of time, before they commit violence; how to build a system so that if other children notice some kid that they’re concerned about, they can somehow notify a teacher or parent. ...
“If you’ve got violence in Indian country, it’s going to be in the schools as well. If you’ve got drugs and methamphetamines in Indian country, it’s going to be in the schools. There’s a direct correlation [between] the level of violence in Indian country and potential violence in the schools. And so it’s all related and you can’t address one without the other.”

Law enforcement resources
“The FBI has scarce resources to dedicate [to investigating violence in Indian country]. I think they do a pretty good job with the resources they have. But after 9/11 [the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington of Sept. 11, 2001], resources ... for things like their Indian program, and white-collar crime in general across this country, has suffered because the FBI has had to divert seasoned investigators and seasoned officers over to the terrorism side of the house. ...
“Once you get out of the terrorism, leaving that aside, you are now left with a small portion of the old FBI. Within that group, they prioritize violence, and violence in Indian country is part of that. ... Violent crime in Indian country is a program in the FBI, not near as big as it should be or as they want it to be. But it’s a resource matter. ... And they have asked IGs, and most of us have responded, to try to fill that vacuum. But it’s difficult for me, with the resources I have, to, quote, ‘police Indian country.’ ...
“The [U.S.] attorney general has a working group of U.S. attorneys who are in Indian country. ... Every time I’ve been to one of their meetings, I’ve seen a willingness on the part of the U.S. attorneys that are working in Indian country to step up and try to do things. But quite frankly, they can’t bring a case sometimes on sovereign reservations ... if the FBI or the IGs don’t have the resources to bring them a case. It’s mostly resources. After 9/11, those resources went away. ... They’ll [U.S. attorneys] prosecute if you bring them a case. ...
“Problems that used to be attendant to non-Indian country have now arrived in Indian country. You’ve got ... borders in the Southeast, Southwest. The Border Patrol does a good job at the border stations, and the [U.S.] Park Service does a fairly good job on their land; and where do all the bad guys go when that good job’s being done? They go over here and start going through Indian country. And there stand two or three tribal police officers, trying to stop them all.
“Doesn’t work.”