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Homeland Security chief meets tribal leaders

Explains controversial policies

WASHINGTON - Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff met in a closed-door session with several tribal leaders from the Four Corners region July 7.

The meeting, which was described as ;'productive'' by DHS officials, focused on tribal sovereignty, law enforcement, infrastructure needs and other concerns.

Joe Shirley Jr., president of the Navajo Nation, along with tribal leaders and officials from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Jicarilla Apache and the Hopi Tribe, attended the session, which took place at the Southern Ute tribal headquarters in Ignacio, Colo.

Before the meeting, which wasn't open to the press, Chertoff participated in the following interview via telephone.

Indian Country Today: What's your sense of your popularity among tribal leaders and Indian people? Does your popularity among Indians matter to you?

Michael Chertoff: I don't know where to begin answering that question. I mean, I recognize that many of the issues we deal with, we deal with on a national basis. And your tribal leaders, like your local leaders, always have their individual perspectives from the standpoint of their constituents. And we're in the difficult position of allocating resources among a great many deserving groups. ...

I have no doubt that some Indian people disagree with some of the positions I have made. Perhaps they agree with other positions. I hope they recognize that security of the border is something that is to their benefit, as well as to the benefit of everybody else in the country.

We try to remain sensitive to some of the particular historical relationships between members of a tribe on one side of the border and members on the other side of the border. But we also have to make sure that we're not compromising national security. So, I don't know whether that makes me popular or unpopular, but we have to ultimately put the good of the whole at the top of the list.

ICT: Did you realize that you would anger some Indians when you waived the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and other laws earlier this year in an effort to speed the building of a border fence between the U.S. and Mexico?

Chertoff: I understood that waiving the laws would generate some controversy. The difficulty is this: Congress has mandated that we put into place tools to protect the border - and to really get a lot of it done this year. Each of these laws, we knew, could be fertile grounds for litigation [as we moved forward with the border protection process].

It's not that we want to disregard the interests of Native Americans or environmentalists. We're perfectly open to engaging with them. And we do engage with them if there's a practical concern, like disturbing a sacred location. ... But we need to be able to do it in a sufficient, informal way, as opposed to getting involved in years of courtroom litigation. ...

ICT: A lot of individual Indians, especially those living on the Texas border with Mexico, have raised complaints and lawsuits as a result of the border fence issue. How concerned are you about these actions from Indian individuals?

Chertoff: I don't think it's something that's unique to Indian landowners. There have been some landowners who have expressed concern ... and sometimes it's not practical - it's based on an ideological view. They just believe that the border ought to be open. ...

But it's not only my view, it's also Congress' view that we have got to get control of the border. We can't make issues of national security optional for individual landowners. ... We've got to have a national policy and protect the whole country. ...

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ICT: Why is reaching out to tribes important to you and the Department of Homeland Security?

Chertoff: Well, obviously we're worried about homeland security across the country. We recognize that we have a significant responsibility to work with tribes, which have sovereignty within their own areas. We want to be sure we are giving them any assistance and information they need that will coordinate our efforts with theirs.

ICT: Before this week, had you ever been to a reservation, either in a personal or professional capacity?

Chertoff: I hadn't. But I've met with tribal leaders in Washington and in Arizona.

ICT: And what prompted your current outreach?

Chertoff: First and foremost, I see this as an opportunity to talk to tribal leaders about their perspectives on homeland security. Some of the measures we're undertaking obviously involve tribes in terms of border issues, in terms of infrastructure protection issues, and in terms of identity cards. Hearing their points of view and really engaging with them is really the most significant thing about [my trip to the Four Corners region]. I also appreciate the opportunity to see a little bit of the country in reservation areas. ...

ICT: What has been the biggest challenge for you and for your department, as such a new agency, on getting up to speed on issues in Indian country?

Chertoff: The biggest challenge is the fact that we, with so many different kinds of issues from coast to coast and from the northern to southern borders - every region, every locality, every tribe has somewhat different issues, depending on their geography and particular circumstances. The sheer volume of different challenges presented leaves us with a lot to work through. I want to make sure we're doing it adequately - communicating with the tribes on issues that are particular to them to make sure that their voice is heard.

ICT: Now, when you've talked to tribal leaders in the past, have you gotten a sense of what they think DHS should and could be doing better?

Chertoff: Well, of course. It depends on where the tribe is located. A tribe on the border in Arizona is going to have different issues than a tribe, say, in the middle of the country. But there's no question that border security is a concern. There's no question that methamphetamine abuse is a concern - in terms of what we can do to clamp down on importation. Those are special issues that are of concern to Native Americans, as they are to everybody.

Some tribes also have issues with respect to their infrastructures, and they want to make sure that they're adequately prepared to protect and respond to problems that may arise with respect to their infrastructures. ...

ICT: As you prepare to leave office in January, what are you doing to ensure that your successor is keen on continuing to forge and develop relationships with tribal officials and governments?

Chertoff: We've actually assigned Stephanie Tennyson, deputy secretary of our intergovernmental affairs program, to be responsible to foster relationships with tribes [during the transition to a new administration]. We're working very hard to institutionalize our projects, so that my successor with inherit a good working relationship with tribes.

ICT: Lastly, as we talk about you wrapping up your tenure, have you given much thought as to which candidate running for president might be best on Indian and tribal issues as they relate to Department of Homeland Security policies?

Chertoff: I don't discuss politics.