SPOKANE, Wash. ? Though many issues were discussed during the weeklong session, it was perhaps the issue of trust reform that captured the most attention. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Neal McCaleb addressed National Congress of American Indians.
The issue of trust reform is mainly a catalyst for the larger issue of the federal government creating a second American Indian office in the Department of Interior, tentatively called the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management, without first consulting the tribes. The issue is further complicated because consultation seems to mean two, different things to the tribes and the Bush administration.
The government has named Ross Swimmer, former Cherokee chief and head of the BIA, to head the office, effectively securing its creation. The tribes are calling foul because they say they do not want to be consulted once the office is up and running, that they should have been questioned about the very concept.
It was under these circumstances that McCaleb addressed the packed main auditorium in the Spokane Convention Center. The audience was polite but there was clearly tension in the room. The speech began with a nod to his former boss, Richard Nixon, and then launched into the need for tribes to attract economic growth and what they could do about it.
McCaleb called for increased public safety and better management oversight on reservations. He also pledged to help tribes find a way to improve infrastructure on their lands.
On the issue of trust responsibility, McCaleb said he believes tribes should have been consulted.
'Consultation is what we are going to do right here and right now,' he said.
After McCaleb's speech, a number of people lined up to ask him questions and there was a dramatic confrontation between McCaleb and Gregg Bourland, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
Bourland essentially accused McCaleb of playing it both ways and expressed his concern the BIA would be reduced to a little more than a social services operation with two separate agencies within the Department of Interior fighting it out for critical funds and resources.
'Taking a bowl full of rotten apples, creating a brand new bowl and then filling it with the same old rotten apples is not reform,' said Bourland about creating the new agency.
Though McCaleb soon left the convention hall after listening to several questions on trust reform and the new office, the issues were not leaving any time soon. It came to a head again when Swimmer arrived to address the topics.
However, like most issues in Indian country, there are shades of gray. Former BIA head Kevin Gover provided some perspective. Questioned after McCaleb's speech, Gover said he knew from personal experience that the job of BIA director is too vast for one person. However, he said he also disagreed with the way the Bush administration and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton handled the issue.
'The problem is that they (the Bush administration) needs to go through the process with tribes and clearly establish, with tribal consent, the jurisdiction of the new agency,' Gover said.
The issue was debated in the auditorium, in the committee rooms and in the hallways. One source, who works closely with Congress, said the issue of trust reform was basically the shape-shifter of issues in that one question, by the tribes, took on many forms. That question is, 'Why were we not consulted and will you consult with us before establishing the jurisdictional boundaries of this office.'
The source said the standard answer from the Bush administration seems to be that office is a foregone conclusion and consultation will take place.
A lengthy exchange between Swimmer and Bourland in the hallway, essentially boiled down to this question, as Bourland seemed to find as many ways to ask it as Swimmer found ways to claim consultation has been thoroughly discussed.
Though trust reform was a big issue, various breakout sessions and committee meetings were held throughout the week to initiate communication between tribes on common issues as well as set policy for NCAI.