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HHS nominee familiar figure to tribes

WASHINGTON - Tommy Thompson, governor of Wisconsin, is President-elect Bush's nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services.

Many cite his experience with welfare reform as a reason for his nomination, but he also has a vast amount of experience with American Indian tribes. Thompson is governor of a state which includes nearly a dozen tribes, with a 15-year record of tribal-state relations under his belt.

Thompson's tribal experience is extremely important to many within Indian country because of the Indian Health Service, or IHS, a federal agency only matched in importance to Indian people by the BIA. As secretary of Health and Human Services, Thompson would be charged with oversight of the IHS and appointment of the IHS director, a position critical in managing program dollars and medical services to tribes across the country.

Lauded for his straightforward style as governor, Thompson has not been very clear about his support for tribes, their sovereign authority or their economic initiatives. From treaty rights to hunt and fish, to tribal environmental regulation, to gaming, Thompson has taken a position most times in opposition to tribes. However, he has also lately been accused, by some who oppose gaming, of supporting the expansion of tribal casinos.

Thompson was elected governor in 1986, and from early in his campaign he made clear his feelings about tribes and their rights. In the late 1980s, lake fronts and boat landings in Wisconsin turned into battlegrounds as non-Indian protesters staged angry and sometimes violent and racist demonstrations, trying to stop tribes from spearing fish, a right secured under treaty and upheld by federal courts.

Although the tribes speared under strict court-ordered regulations, which included safe harvest levels and tribal quotas, the spearing outraged many non-Indian sport fisherman who said the spearing would harm the walleye population. Soon, several anti-Indian treaty groups were formed throughout Wisconsin to stop tribal spear fishing. It was in a campaign speech to one of these groups, PARR, or Protect America's Rights and Resources, that Thompson shared his thoughts on tribal treaty rights.

"I believe spearing is wrong," said Thompson. "Regardless of what treaties, negotiations or federal courts may say."

In 1987, this same group hosted a national meeting for anti-Indian groups where they announced a call "to push the U.S. Congress to study and change federal Indian policies."

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While the conflict over spear fishing received much of the press, Thompson has also been involved in the conflict over tribal regulatory authority under the Clean Water and Clear Air Acts. This authority gives tribes the same standing as states to enforce environmental standards.

In Wisconsin, the EPA granted the Sokaogon Chippewa independent authority to regulate water quality on their reservation. However, the Sokaogon reservation, known for its wild rice, is just a mile downstream from a proposed sulfide mine on Wolf River, a project the governor supports and the tribe opposes. The proposed mine is the largest of a series of metallic sulfide deposits planned for development in northern Wisconsin by Exxon Minerals Co. After Thompson was elected governor, he had his chief political advisor, James Klauser, a former Exxon lobbyist, attempt to negotiate what some characterize as a buyout of the Sokaogon's rights.

In 1997, administration secretary Mark Bugher denied that the governor's demand for concessions on tribal environmental regulations had anything to do with promoting the mine proposal. He said the state simply did not want to discourage potential businesses that might want to invest in the state who could be "confused by stricter environmental regulations on reservations."

Gov. Thompson also has been involved in ongoing conflicts over tribal gaming. In 1998, tribes say Thompson threatened to shut down tribal casinos when compacts were up for renewal unless tribes agreed to place non-gaming issues, such as tribal hunting and fishing rights and environmental regulations, on the negotiating table. The tribes refused. While Thompson has at times worked to thwart tribal gaming operations, he has also been accused of being a sympathizer by those who oppose gaming.

Just last year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Gov. Thompson had cut a "secret deal" with the Menominee tribe for the development of an off-reservation casino. Thompson, who claims to be opposed to the expansion of gaming, agreed to allow the Menominee casino to offer blackjack and slot machines, as well as a keno-like games and dog racing. The compact also outlines procedures for adding new games, such as craps and roulette. The agreement still must be approved by the BIA and returned to the governor for his signature.

Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle criticized Thompson for the agreement and asked federal officials to reconsider the compact.

However, now that Thompson has been tapped to become secretary of Health and Human Services, that agreement may be in jeopardy since he will be replaced by Lt. Governor Scott McCallum, who is opposed to casino development. McCallum has made it clear he will not sign agreements allowing tribes to build off-reservation casinos in Wisconsin.

Thompson's nomination must be approved by the Senate. Hearings by the Senate Finance and Judiciary Committees were set to begin Jan. 18.