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McCaleb came prepared to work

WASHINGTON - Neal McCaleb is new to the job of assistant secretary for Indian affairs, but he is not new to the role of serving in government and working for tribes.

He says he has come prepared to work and that he is committed to serving the interests of tribal governments, but he also acknowledges the obstacles he faces and the complex problems of an agency under constant criticism.

McCaleb is a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma and someone who has gone from private to public sector jobs numerous times throughout his life and characterizes himself as a "career bureaucrat with periods of involuntary service in private enterprise."

His mother was Chickasaw, but sadly died when he was only 5. He was then raised outside of Oklahoma City where his father was a highway engineer. He became involved in tribal issues in the early '60s through the University of Oklahoma and worked to address some of the social problems and discrimination against American Indians in Oklahoma at the time.

He then worked primarily with tribes in western Oklahoma, but ultimately ended up working for 28 of the 38 tribes in the state, consulting on infrastructure development and economic development. He than began his political career, serving eight years in the Oklahoma House of Representatives where he was elected minority floor leader in 1978.

McCaleb served as Oklahoma's first Secretary of Transportation in Gov. Bellmon's administration from 1987 to 1991 and, until his nomination by President Bush, in Gov. Keating's administration since 1995. He was responsible for overseeing the construction and maintenance of the state's transportation systems and the state-assisted general airports program.

In 1999, then-Secretary McCaleb negotiated the reinstatement of passenger rail service to Oklahoma with Amtrak after a 20-year absence. He was also the first in the history of the state government to serve concurrently as director of both the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (1987 to 1995) and the Oklahoma Transportation Authority, as well as serving as cabinet secretary.

"They combined three separate salaried jobs into one job," said McCaleb. "I then developed a reputation for working cheap."

Asked how he became the nominee for assistant secretary he responds very candidly, making no apologies for his aggressive approach to gaining the position.

"I worked for the job," McCaleb said. "I really wanted it. I let some people know in Washington that I was interested in the job and got an interview with the secretary of Interior and an interview with the White House. I'm excited to be here and ready to roll up my sleeves and begin work."

As far as his priorities, McCaleb says that the number one issue is economic development. He says that the poor economic situation faced by many on reservations is the cause for a number of other problems and if properly addressed could provide a jumpstart to a better life overall.

"One of the primary goals needs to be economic emergence or economic development in Indian country because in my judgment a lot of the social dysfunctions that we have in Indian country are a result of the despair that comes out of the economic circumstances. If we enhance the economies and create jobs and employ people so they have a sense of usefulness that will go a long way toward taking us where we need to go."

Asked how you promote economic development on American Indian lands, McCaleb says that is the tough question and the tough answer, but says there are some basic issues to consider.

"I served on the President's Commission on Reservation Economies in the 1980s and we came out with 48 different recommendations," McCaleb said. "One of them was that you need more money, more outside private capital invested on reservations. At that time they were just economic black holes, there wasn't any economy. Its improved a great deal in the past 17 years, but there was a number of recommendations to attract outside investment."

And that, McCaleb says, was where he and others on that commission ran into problems.

"One of the things some criticized was that we wanted to abandoned the BIA, that the report advocated the abolition of the BIA. Clearly it didn't. We have in large measure implemented many of the recommendations found in that report

"It said the primary responsibility of the bureau was not programmatic and governmental functions, those belong to the tribes. The primary responsibility was the trust responsibility and the report advocated a new name for that, 'the Indian Trust Service' and that caused a lot of heartburn, but it made good sense to me. The name doesn't make a difference it's still a service to Indians. We do have responsibilities outside of serving as a trustee like the role of advocate for Indian interests and the role of technical assistant."

Also criticized was the recommendation that tribal courts be subject to the authority of federal courts and that tribes limit the use of sovereign immunity. McCaleb says that a number of factors and perspectives were being considered at the time and he did not support all of them.

"The idea about the courts was for investment to come in. They need to know that there is a fair and objective method of adjudicating legitimate differences that will arise, and they will arise. The committee at large saw that as a possible solution.

"I don't think that is the only solution. I think the tribal courts could deal with these situations, but they need to be independent and not a political arm of the executive. Tribes saw this recommendation as an incursion on tribal sovereignty and probably it is.

This commission was made up of nine different people, with nine different perspectives and I can't say that I supported everyone. The thing is you've got to have equity, you've got to have fairness, you've got to have a mechanism, you've got to have rules, and you've got to have a way of adjudicating those rules in Indian country to attract other people's money and you're not going to have economic development unless you do that."

Another priority mentioned by the administration was Indian education. During a campaign stop in New Mexico, President Bush promised Pueblo leaders he would request $1 billion in funds for American Indian schools in his first budget proposal to Congress. Bush said that he was committed to improving the condition of these schools and that American Indian education would be a priority.

Asked about that promise, McCaleb said that the whole $1 billion is not going to be allocated in one year, but over a period of four to six years.

"What the president has said is that in six years he wants to liquidate the entire backlog of the deferred maintenance and replacement in Indian schools. Now that's $1.3 billion. I think in my opinion that we're going to have to 'advance fund' to address these schools' needs. There have been bills introduced in Congress to do just that.

"The concept is that you take $30 million and you put it in an escrow account and that escrow is going to gain interest on that for 25 years. In the 25 years that will be worth $70 million. So you sell bonds for $70 million in the future to fund school construction now. It looks like a win-win deal to me and I'm going to encourage the administration to support the idea. I think it's going to help the president keep his commitment."

Tribal trust funds and the federal government's management of those funds has been at the center of controversy and debate for years. Recently, Secretary Norton issued new directives to address the current problem. However, a court-appointed monitor in the Cobell case recently criticized government efforts and questioned its sincerity with regard to consultation.

Asked about the issue, McCaleb acknowledged that problems are immense, but reiterated his commitment to tackling the problem and complying with the law.

"The criticism of the monitor's report was that the previous administration had endorsed the idea of statistical sampling and early in Secretary Norton's tenure she was encouraged to bless that and she did, but like all of us, she was on the education curve.

"She has now made it clear through her new orders that an historical accounting is more consistent with the court's order than statistical sampling. That's why she ordered the historical accounting and created an office to do it.

"So, I think she has been responsive, but I am not criticizing the monitor. Our job is to comply with the court orders to the maximum extent that we can and I fully intend to do that and I think the secretary intends to do that also."

Asked about consultation, McCaleb said that his main interest is open lines of communication and it is only through this communication that trust can be built.

"There has been a rumor going around that this administration is going to back away from the consultation process that was defined in the previous administration. I've read it and I don't intend to back away from it at all.

"The real question is defining what constitutes a federal action. There will be debates about what constitutes a federal action, but I'm going to operate in good faith and I assume the tribes are going to operate in good faith also. Does that mean that we're not going to have a difference of opinion? No, it doesn't mean that at all, but trust is built on open communication."

A native of Oklahoma City, McCaleb has been a practicing engineer with more than 40 years experience in designing and supervising the construction of roads, bridges, public facilities and architectural structures in Oklahoma and throughout the Southwest. He earned his bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from Oklahoma State University. He and his wife Georgann have four grown children.

McCaleb is the eighth assistant secretary for Indian Affairs to be sworn in since Congress established the position in the late 1970s.