WINNEBAGO, Neb. - The BIA suffers from a credibility problem, is expected
to do too much and is paranoid about lawsuits.
Those are some observations from Lance Morgan, a person who spent time on
the inside of the bureau.
Morgan, CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., was asked by former Assistant Secretary Dave
Anderson to work with the bureau to develop an economic development
strategy. Morgan is currently a contractor, not an employee. But what he
observed while inside the bureau is telling.
Like many, Morgan is cynical about the BIA, but he has tempered his
cynicism after seeing how the people in the bureau function, and what they
are expected to do.
"It's interesting. I went in with lots of preconceived notions about the
BIA. I think I was pretty much wrong on all of them," Morgan said.
"Most of the people there are pretty good, they mean well. I didn't
necessarily think that was the case going into it; I didn't sense from
anybody any kind of malicious intent towards Indian country."
He said because of the fear of lawsuits the people in the bureau are
conditioned to cover their backsides on every issue. Challenges come on
almost everything the bureau does. The Cobell case has changed the way the
BIA does business.
Cobell v. Norton, a class-action lawsuit filed in 1996, is attempting to
force the federal government to account for billions of dollars belonging
to approximately 500,000 American Indians and their heirs which has been
held in trust since the late 19th century.
"The administration walked into a boiling-over Cobell case. I think the
Clinton administration's idea was to stall it out, this administration
walked into it and didn't even know what hit them."
He said when Gale Norton took office as Secretary of Interior, the Cobell
case was not even on the radar.
"What we need to understand is the system is broke, we have been trying to
fix it, but really what we need to do is junk it. Then come up with an
entirely new system that's based on much more reality on what tribes are
The bureau is currently looking for an assistant secretary following
Anderson's resignation after just more than one year in the position.
"People think the assistant secretary is in charge, there are a lot of
those [assistant secretaries] in Washington these days. I think the whole
staff of people in the Department of Interior view you as a staff member,
so when you are the assistant secretary you are a big deal in Indian
country, but you are just one of the crowd in D.C. and one of the crowd in
the Department of Interior, and so they expect you to be a team player."
Morgan created an economic structure within the Winnebago Tribe that
continues to grow financially. He did that by, as he said, weaving through
the jurisdictional issues, ambiguities and nuances. He said he learned the
ins and outs of Indian law, special nuances of trust land and
"I feel like a witch doctor to have been all that successful, but what's
depressing about all that is that I've come to the realization that none of
it matters. Not everybody is going to be a great witch doctor; and ...
expecting Indian country to have all these people who all of a sudden can
weave through these systems and make it work in a political environment -
that's not going to happen. So we have to come up with a different
Morgan praises the BIA for doing as well as it has given the tasks. He said
the bureau is expected to manage the largest school system in the country;
manage a national law enforcement agency that covers a vast geographical
area; and manage all of Indian country's resources, land and assets.
"What the BIA has to do far exceeds what any other government agency is
supposed to do.
"They are supposed to do it, not in a homogeneous environment, they are
supposed to do it with 500 different distinct entities. I think you could
put the Harvard School of Government on this task and they wouldn't
necessarily do any better."
He said the focus shouldn't be on blaming the BIA. The focus should be on
how to solve the problems.
"We understand our problems far better than the BIA does, so I think it's
really incumbent upon us to try to get to use our national organizations
and use our political people and use our influence with the federal
government to craft our own solutions. And that to me is a far smarter
strategy than complaining about something after the fact."
"I sensed, especially from the top people in the Department of Interior,
there is not negativity towards tribes at all. I sensed that they wanted to
come up with solutions to the problems, that they were searching for
solutions, and I didn't expect that."
Morgan said he was asked to come up with a strategy for an economic
development department. "We have no money, very few people and we have one
of the largest economic disasters ever. Yet we are supposed to figure out a
way to solve Indian country's economic issues with really no budget. Short
of a miracle, I only have one plan."
That plan was to have the BIA back off and remove any impediments to
"I have to say most people were nice to me there. I had a couple of issues,
those may have been as much a function of my personality; when you are used
to being a CEO and all of a sudden you are a consultant in an unwieldy
government organization, you get humbled pretty quick. I can assure you I