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Herrington and McCaleb: One up, one down

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They are both Chickasaw and they are both in the limelight this week. One is up in space; the other just vacated space. While one is at the pinnacle and the other is at the point of exit from public life, both John Herrington, NASA astronaut and Neal McCaleb, outgoing BIA director, have sustained successful careers. We congratulate them.

This week, Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington, 44, became the first enrolled American Indian to go into orbit. Hero material by any standard, it is hard to find a more intriguing role model for young people. Herrington is a scientist and a Navy pilot. He is flight engineer on shuttle STS 113, which is carrying a seven-man crew on a mission to rendezvous with the International Space Station. Herrington's mission is transporting a three-man "Expedition 6" crew to relieve personnel on the International Space Station Alpha. He will join others in a series of three spacewalks outside Endeavour to attach a new segment to the space station.

Herrington's colleagues praised his "quiet pursuit of competence and extraordinary diligence." The Native astronaut's heritage has become a source of pride for NASA. Appropriately, a 12-day delay in the planned launch moved the actual shuttle flight to fall within Native American month. Herrington, who often speaks to schoolchildren, will certainly become a major example for Native youth, perhaps in the same vein as Billy Mills, the Oglala Olympic gold medalist.

Two hundred representatives from the Chickasaw Nation were on hand during the early launch schedules. Because of flight delays, many had to return home before the actual take-off, but it is clear that Herrington is a great source of pride, as well as an ambassador, for his nation and for all Native peoples. The Indian astronaut carried six eagle feathers and other Native medicines and symbols on the flight, including flags of the Chickasaw and Crow tribes, sweet grass, two arrowheads, a stone from Bear Butte in South Dakota's Black Hills, wooden flutes and flute music, and a piece of Hopi pottery. Tobacco, probably the most sacred of all Native plants, was unfortunately banned from the flight. This most deeply and widely respected of Native sacraments is these days commonly denigrated in the virulent (and justifiable) national campaign against cigarette smoking. NASA might have considered the spiritual nature of Herrington's request, however. This clearly is a good point of education for tribes to take to the space agency.

The same week that saw John Herrington reach for the stars saw Assistant Interior Secretary - Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb throw down the towel. After 17 months as the Bush administration's top official for Indian affairs, McCaleb, 67, announced he would retire at the end of the year. Enough is enough, he told his superiors at Interior Department on Nov. 21, citing the controversy over management of Indian trust funds as his main reason. "I have been disappointed to learn that a contentious and litigious environment obscures the hard work that remains before us," McCaleb said. In September, McCaleb and Secretary of Interior Gale Norton were held in contempt of court by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth.

The long-running class-action lawsuit by Indian plaintiffs, which started before his appointment, has sought to secure an accounting of hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties lost by Indian families as a result of corruption, disregard and mismanagement by the federal bureaucracy. McCaleb said the case imposed constraints on his ability to do the job and distracted attention from his top priority to help "provide more long-term benefits for Indian country." Thus his decision to "bring my public service career to a close".

McCaleb and others recounted his 35-year history of involvement in American Indian affairs, which began in 1967 with his work on programs aimed at building economic opportunities for Native people. Many in Indian country recognized that in his short tenure, McCaleb worked to support and create economic opportunities for the tribes, while others have been scathing in their criticisms of his approach. Several promising initiatives were completely waylaid by the deep controversies of the era. However, following a distinguished career that introduced new ideas aimed at advancing Indian economic interests, McCaleb will now have more time for perhaps his most important role, that of elder parent and grandfather. We respect him and wish him well.

No doubt the job of BIA director has become increasingly difficult. There is putrid baggage in two centuries of dishonor by contradictory and often malignant federal policy. It may be easier, after all, to put a man in space than it is to put honor in the federal conduct of American Indian affairs.