Norton at Interior - fairness for Indians, or Watt now?

The good news is that former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., will not be Interior secretary.

The bad news is that Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., won't be either.

The big news is that Colorado lawyer Gale A. Norton was tapped for the job, but leading environmentalists say she won?t be confirmed without a fight.

Environmentalists also campaigned against Campbell. So did anti-Indians and wing nuts, inside and outside of Interior. But, he was the top contender for the post until December, when Gorton was declared the loser in his senatorial race and became an out-of-work member of the club to be salted away in the new administration. Gorton was knocked out of the running by Indians and environmentalists, along with his own disinterest in the position.

Campbell was taken out of the race for Interior because the Republican loss in Washington produced the 50-50 split in the Senate, making it essential for sitting senators on both sides of the aisle to stay put.

While Campbell was being considered, Colorado Republicans began jockeying for a daisy chain of federal and state offices that would have opened up once he moved to Interior. When there was no Senate seat to fill, the Bush-Cheney transition smoothed the many ruffled feathers in the state by promising that the Interior position would go to a Coloradan with conservative credentials.

Norton met all the tests. She cut her teeth at the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver for the first four years of her legal career. Her boss was James Watt, who later peddled the organization?s anti-Indian, anti-environmental agenda as the Reagan administration's first Interior secretary. (Today, Watt is in private practice in Vice President-elect Dick Cheney's home state, Wyoming.)

Devoted to the abolition of Indian treaties and sovereign tribal rights, Mountain States was founded in very large part to counter gains made by Indians in the courts, in Congress and in the Nixon and Ford administrations. It has opposed federal protections for Native American sacred lands, even working against Interior's rule on voluntary compliance to halt the desecration and erosion of Devil's Tower in Wyoming.

A Reagan political appointee from 1984 to 1987, Norton worked at Agriculture and then Interior as solicitor for conservation and wildlife. Both departments during those years were attempting to end Indian programs or turn them over to the states; to prevent any lands from being returned to or acquired by tribes; and to impede Native religious freedom. Both of the Reagan administrations tried to cut the federal Indian budget by one-third.

Norton has rightly taken exception to those who brand her guilty because of her associations of long ago. In fairness, it must be noted that no evidence has surfaced to date of any direct involvement by Norton in anti-Indian activities. (There are broad hints that such will be produced before her confirmation hearing, and the truth of that will be known soon enough.)

Campbell praises Norton as a good choice. Ute officials in Colorado give her high marks on issues affecting their tribes. Boosters laud her work on the tribal water rights settlement and development project, Animas La Plata, which was opposed by most environmentalists and was Exhibit A in their brief against Campbell.

But it was all environment and no Indians Dec. 29, when President-elect George W. Bush introduced Norton and his choices to run three other departments with significant Indian obligations - Education, Health & Human Services and Veterans Affairs. It was odd and sad that Native Peoples did not merit a single reference during the entire press conference.

Money alone should have dictated a mention in relation to Interior, where the Indian budget is the largest of all its agencies and where tribal gaming businesses have to tithe to the federal government. Since Native people still suffer from the poorest health conditions and the lowest level of educational attainment in the country, someone might have pledged to do something about that. And shame on everyone who passed up the opportunity to acknowledge the distinguished and disproportionately high service of Indian veterans in all U.S. wars.

Perhaps the new folks will listen to Campbell and some of his fellow senators with Indian policy expertise on ways to better Native lives and to enhance diplomatic relations in Indian country.

In passing over Campbell, the president-elect missed his chance to strike a big-time blow for diversity. Not only would Campbell have been the first Native American to run Interior, but his would have been one of the few picks of the incoming administration to actually be embraced by a majority of the group represented by the nominee.

Norton, if confirmed, will be the first woman to head Interior, which is no small thing. Nearly as old as the republic itself, the agency is definitely showing the signs of long-term, white male inbreeding. For 150 years, Interior has been the United States' strong arm in charge of controlling both Indian resources and Native Peoples.

It is not likely that Norton fully appreciates the history she will encounter and the Indian legal obligations she will have as Interior secretary. Before being legally bound to consult with Native leaders, she would be well served to meet with Native women and men now on how to avoid repeating Interior?s sorry past and how to fulfill her future duties.