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Norton fields questions on tribal issues

WASHINGTON - After a week of long and pointed questioning during confirmation hearings, Gale Norton, Bush's nominee for Interior secretary, is on her way to assuming control of the Department of Interior and the BIA.

After being marked as one of President Bush's most controversial nominees, Norton calmly answered most questions from Democrats who criticized her record. While much questioning focused on the environment and the Endangered Species Act, Norton was asked about her position on tribal sovereignty and tribal self-governance.

Since her new responsibilities include oversight of the BIA, members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources asked how Norton views tribal government and the federal trust responsibility.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., asked her position on state rights over tribal self-governance and how she views the state-tribal relationship. While Norton shed some light on the subject, she was a bit vague on the details.

"These are complex legal questions," Norton said. "Decisions of government are best made by those who are affected. What is true for states is true for tribes. Self-governance is important and I support that as a concept."

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., continued with questions about the president's campaign promise regarding Indian education. Bush has promised pueblo leaders he would request $1 billion in funds for Indian schools in his first budget proposal to Congress. Domenici cited the dilapidated condition of many Indian schools across the country and called on Norton to help make the president's promise a reality. Norton said she expects the issue to be one of her first priorities.

"I will strongly support that. It has my whole-hearted personal commitment."

The ongoing dispute over tribal trust funds emerged in questioning. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., who supports Norton's nomination, voiced his continuing frustrations over the issue and concern that current problems are not being resolved.

"I'm still not sure they are going to straighten that up in-house," Campbell said.

The federal government holds approximately $450 million in nearly 500,000 individual trust accounts. Reportedly there are no records for more than $100 million. In tribal trust accounts overall, $2.4 billion remains unreconciled. Norton said she was shocked to hear about the problem when she read about it in the press and plans to focus on the issue.

"It's alarming to hear that we have that much money that belongs to Indian people," Norton said. "I am committed to working to resolve that issue."

Freshman Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who defeated Slade Gorton in November, was assigned to the committee a few weeks ago. After receiving heavy support from environmentalists and tribes in Washington state during her campaign, Cantwell's questioning of Norton was highly anticipated by environmental groups and tribes across the country.

They focused primarily on Norton's stance on tribal sovereignty and Norton reiterated her position and spoke of her personal experience working with tribes.

"With the tribes in my state, we've worked together on negotiations of gaming and from that we developed a working relationship," Norton said. "I have a great deal of respect for those tribes and tribes across America. Tribal sovereignty is important. The Department of Interior has a trust responsibility and I look forward to working with the tribes."

In spite of her position that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) should be opened up for oil and gas exploration - a position opposed by the Gwich'in Indians and the National Congress of American Indians - a few tribes publicly offered support for Norton. Cited at the hearing were letters of support from the Viejas Tribe in Southern California and the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribe in Colorado.

"Ms. Norton is a very capable individual whose public service is not based on a desire for accolade or credit, but on a commitment to resolve issues, no matter how controversial," said Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Ernest House and Southern Ute Chairman Vida Peabody in a joint letter to the committee. "We proudly support her nomination and enthusiastically encourage the Senate to approve her nomination."

While President Bush had some earlier problems with nominees for his cabinet, including Linda Chavez, who stepped down after revelations she housed an illegal alien, and John Ashcroft, whose conservative stance on abortion and desegregation sparked controversy over his nomination for attorney general, all of Bush's 16 cabinet-level nominees are expected to be confirmed.