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Indian Affairs nominee bit of a mystery in Indian country

OKLAHOMA CITY - Following the recent announcement by the Department of Interior of Republican Neal McCaleb as President Bush's nominee for assistant secretary, Indian Affairs, a rush of comments from across Indian country voice questionable support

McCaleb is of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and little is known about him or his activities outside of Oklahoma. Many consider him an 11th-hour appointment and wonder if having a background as a civil engineer will be enough to build bridges between Washington and Indian country.

Interior Secretary Gail Norton said she believes McCaleb will bring a unique blend of skills and experience to the post. "His compassion for Indian issues, decisive management skills and ability to facilitate dialogue will help to improve this program and the relationship of the department with Indian tribes around the country."

Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota isn't as optimistic. Hall said he was not familiar with McCaleb and that in all the meetings he attended, McCaleb's name was never been mentioned . Hall said he considers this an 11th-hour appointment.

"It's a concern that he may not have the knowledge about tribal sovereignty that is needed," Hall said. "If you don't use your sovereignty, and we have to use it every day, you will lose it. If you don't have that experience, you are very limited in that capacity. That position is supposed to be an advocate for Indian tribes."

In the official background information released by Transportation's Public Information Office, a one-page summary shows McCaleb is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, was appointed in 1972-1974 by President Nixon to the National Council on Indian Opportunity and in 1983 he was appointed to the Indian Reservation Economics Commission by President Reagan.

The Indian Reservation Economics Commission on which McCaleb served wanted to not only end the BIA, but change the status of sovereignty and other policies which would have finished the Indian extermination that began during the Andrew Jackson-era. McCaleb is poised to head the very agency his committee wanted to dismantle.

It cannot be confirmed whether he voted for or against the findings in the report, which was later condemned throughout Indian country. McCaleb would not speak to the press before the confirmation hearings.

"The Begaye-McKenzie administration feels that it is a responsible choice given the fact that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has much work to do in carrying out its duties to serve American Indian communities on a government-government basis," Navajo President Begaye said.

"We must continue to stress, however, that the Bush administration cannot ignore services that directly affect American Indian communities.

"The Begaye-McKenzie administration believes in the idea that the federal government must be responsible to its people, and must be held accountable for its actions. With this, we share common concerns with other Indian nations with respect to trust responsibility."

McCaleb is a graduate of Oklahoma State University (1957) and holds a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering. He served eight years in the Oklahoma House of Representatives (1974-1982). He spent more than 40 years designing and supervising construction of roads, bridges, public facilities and architectural structures in Oklahoma and the Southwest, but little is known about his stand on many issues which face Indian country.

Information from Interior and Oklahoma Transportation shed little light on McCaleb the man. He has won numerous awards in Oklahoma and was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in 1999.

Neal A. McCaleb was born in Oklahoma City June 30, 1935. He is married to Georgeann McCaleb and has four grown children and 14 grandchildren. He lives in Edmond, Okla., and announced he will keep his home there even if he is appointed as assistant secretary.

Those who have met McCaleb describe him as a "people person" with good public relations and administrative skills. Many contacted by Indian Country Today in the Oklahoma area believe his administrative skills brought him the nomination.

He is said to be a close friend of Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and Oklahoma sources speculated his appointment is a payback from President Bush to Keating.

"That (the rumor) could be because Keating was passed over for attorney general," said Gordon Melson, executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party. "But I never heard of anything about McCaleb associated with that or any kind of scandal.

"He is one of the Republican Party officials who has been able to work well with both parties. That hasn't been true of Gov. Keating and some others."

Melson said he wasn't sure what background the future assistant secretary would need, but he said he had nothing derogatory to say about McCaleb. "The gentleman seems to work well with people."

Information about McCaleb's association with the Chickasaw Nation was sketchy as far as his participation in various tribal programs. Information provided by the nation was similar to that of the transportation release. Transportation official said that they didn't believe he spoke Chickasaw.

Gov. Bill Anoatubby, said to be a close friend, released a statement saying, "It is a source of great pride to have such an outstanding Chickasaw citizen appointed to this position. Mr. McCaleb is a dedicated professional with a long history of distinguished service in the state of Oklahoma and there is no doubt he will provide excellent leadership at the Bureau of Indian Affairs."

It remains to be seen whether or not McCaleb's membership on the board of the proposed Chickasaw Nation Bank will be a stumbling block during his confirmation hearing. The Chickasaw Bank will be one of the first banks wholly owned by a tribe.

Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla., said he is pleased with the selection of McCaleb for the top position of the BIA and was excited to see someone who was not only well qualified, but from Oklahoma nominated.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith said the Cherokee Nation is supporting McCaleb's nomination. "We are pleased that the Bush administration selected an Indian from Oklahoma to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Neal McCaleb has valuable knowledge of Oklahoma tribes and has an understanding of our unique place in history and federal policy.

"He has expressed a willingness to listen and is approachable. Those attributes are the foundation for building positive and constructive relationships. We look forward to doing that with McCaleb."

Those in McCaleb's office said they have been instructed not to speak to the media. McCaleb would say only, "I am honored and humbled by President Bush's confidence in considering me for a position of service to the Indian community.

"This is an important position affecting Oklahoma Indians and tribal governments, as well as those throughout the nation, and comes at a time of great challenges facing tribal and Indian issues.

"There is a clear need for improvement in Indian economic development conditions and reconciliation of individual Indian trust accounts, and I look forward to discussing these issues at the appropriate time during my confirmation hearings before the Senate.

"I hope to be a part of the effort to improve the quality of life for every American Indian, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian."

Little information is being released from the BIA public information offices either, so the mystery remains. Who is Neal McCaleb, and what will he do if appointed as the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs?

Smaller tribes in Oklahoma have had problems in the past with taxation issues and some road projects during McCaleb's stint in the Oklahoma government. At one point McCaleb found himself at the center of controversy over a road project in the Oklahoma City area known as the "Outer Loop Project." A proposed highway was to be built through a Kickapoo burial site. The tribe was not contacted by Transportation and participated in a successful campaign to stop the project. In February 1999, McCaleb announced the project would not go through because of 3,000 letters received in protest.

Outside of Oklahoma, many questions arise from land-based tribes, as to whether McCaleb understands reservation issues at all.

Duane Sherman, chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California, said he is very concerned about McCaleb's qualifications and understanding of Indian country outside the boundaries of Oklahoma.

"I question the strength of his background in Indian affairs. The agencies he has been involved in haven't been the most progressive on Indian affairs," Sherman said. "It seems as if in the Bush administration, many of the issues affecting tribes today, like big business versus tribal interests, fly in the face of the tribes.

"What I mean by big business are things like mining and toxic storage and so forth. The worst environmental problems exist in Indian reservations. These are unregulated frontiers that with eased federal restrictions can be devastating to tribal interests. However, if McCaleb is appointed, I look forward to working with him on these issues. I'm just very concerned at the outset."

Chairman Jon Black Hawk of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska said he believes McCaleb is less likely to favor the agenda of the land-based tribes whose issues differ from tribes in states such as Oklahoma.

"People in Oklahoma get a lot more attention than we do," Black Hawk said. "Their situation is different from ours. I think that will be the consistent message we will hear from Aberdeen (area office). I think that is what happens when you have someone that comes from an area where they don't have treaties ingrained in their minds."

One of the few people who worked with McCaleb, and was willing to talk about him, was Democrat Oklahoma State Sen. Enoch Kelly Haney, Seminole. Haney served with McCaleb in the Oklahoma House.

"I've known Neal for a long time. I think he will make a very good assistant secretary. He did have some conflicts here with the tribes over some gas compacts, but at the same time he was head of the transportation department ... I think he will have the same kind of commitment when he gets to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He understands tribal sovereignty and my feeling is he has commitment to it."

Haney said that when McCaleb was in House he had given the Five Civilized Tribes more attention than the smaller tribes, but he believes that McCaleb would work well with all the tribes.

"I've worked with him for a long, long time. He is committed to the task at hand. I just haven't been involved with him on tribal government issues on a national scale for a long time ... I don't think his lifestyle is in the Indian world, it has not been, but I think he is sensitive to the issues."