WASHINGTON, D.C. - The long-awaited confirmation hearing for the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs came and went without a hitch.
Neal McCaleb, President George W. Bush's appointee for the BIA's top job found the Indian Affairs Committee friendly territory.
The hearing before a packed audience included testimony from McCaleb and questions from Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and vice chairman of the committee. With numerous words of support by committee members, McCaleb's nomination was easily approved by the full Senate.
"The key and repeated word in my remarks is responsibility, and by that I mean to imply the ability to respond as well as the obligation to respond to the needs and aspirations of this nation's Indigenous peoples in a timely and effective manner," McCaleb said.
"The ability of the Indian Service to respond will be defined by its leadership at all levels, the informed support of its clients, and the resources provided by the Congress in its wisdom."
McCaleb, most recently Oklahoma's Transportation Secretary, is a member of the Chickasaw Nation who has also served in the state Legislature and on two presidential commissions on tribal issues. Throughout the hearing McCaleb was flanked by Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby and Osage Nation Chief Charles Tillman, who both offered strong words of support.
"Public service has become one of the traditions of the Chickasaw people and Neal certainly has exhibited his zeal for public service," said Gov. Anoatubby. "His career has been one which has been highlighted by his interest in serving the people that he represents and not himself."
McCaleb also received a number of encouraging words from members of the committee after he outlined his priority concerns. These included proper management of the federal trust responsibility with regard to tribal trust assets; economic development which takes advantage of the unique status of tribal governments; education; reservation roads, and public safety on American Indian lands, which includes tribal courts as well as law enforcement.
McCaleb's statements on economic development attracted the most attention from the committee, with support from the members. McCaleb said a tax-base derived from economic activity is what independent governments need, but what most tribal governments lack. The U.S. Supreme Court just overturned a decision by an appellate court that affected the Navajo Nation's ability to impose a tax on non-Navajo members who lived and operated businesses on fee land in the reservation boundaries.
"To achieve lasting and self-sustaining economies on reservations, we should build upon the successes of tribal enterprises by replicating the model of private investment on tribal lands in a partnership or franchise with tribal government," McCaleb said.
"These partnerships should be market driven enterprises that take advantage of the unique sovereign status enjoyed by tribes."
Campbell was the only member to ask any direct questions and they focused primarily on education, tribal sovereignty, tribal recognition, the trust funds case, economic development, reservation roads and tribal youth.
In Campbell's opening remarks he listed 10 issues important for the BIA to focus on and five of those were the trust fund solution. He repeated the trust fund after each of the other issues.
McCaleb told the committee that the trust fund issue could be resolved in four years.