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Norton speaks to tribes and Indian Affairs Committee

WASHINGTON - Gale Norton, newly appointed secretary of Interior, has spent part of her first weeks on the job learning about and talking about tribal issues.

Secretary Norton addressed tribal leaders during a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians one week and testified before members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs the next.

Norton, formerly the attorney general for Colorado, is charged with oversight and management of the BIA and a number of other programs within Interior which serve tribal governments and Indian people.

In both appearances, Norton reiterated support for tribal sovereignty and focused on Indian education and reform of tribal trust funds management.

"I take very seriously my responsibility as trustee for Indian lands, trust moneys and federal obligations to the tribes under treaties and laws," Norton said.

While Norton offered support of tribal sovereignty and self-government, she stressed education and tribal trust funds. President Bush had promised tribes in his campaign that he would replace six BIA schools and ask for $802 million to be budgeted toward repairs at other schools. Norton said that Congress had already appropriated $292 million to begin addressing problems in fiscal year 2001 and that Interior would immediately provide $136 million to replace the six BIA schools.

"President Bush and I will continue to work with Congress to eliminate the current backlog of school repairs by 2006, while replacing older more dilapidated schools," Norton said. "Schools with the most urgent needs will be given priority in the budget requests."

BIA and tribally controlled schools across the country have been plagued for years by under funding and dilapidated conditions. The BIA is responsible for 185 Indian elementary and secondary schools throughout the country. About one-third of them are operated directly by the BIA while the remainder operate under contract or grants to Indian tribal entities. The schools have an enrollment of approximately 50,000 children in 23 states.

Reform of tribal trust management was characterized as a "very high priority" by Norton who said providing needed services to Indian trust beneficiaries was of critical importance. Interior has had numerous problems, legal and administrative, dealing with data and records for billions of dollars in tribal trust assets.

"As a trustee, I clearly recognize the important obligations of the department to put in place those systems, procedures and people to fulfill our obligation to the trust beneficiaries, both individual Indians and tribes," Norton said. "This is an enormous undertaking in correcting the errors and omissions of many decades."

Norton did not give specifics on the overall budget for Indian programs or if there would be any cuts. However, she did say some "priorities" would be set.

Norton was warmly received by tribal leaders at NCAI. Many remarked how they appreciated her willingness to talk with them so early after taking office. Others noted her promise to employ "consultation, cooperation, and communication" in working with tribal governments.

"I was very encouraged by her words on consultation," said Robert Chicks, chairman of the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe in Wisconsin.

Members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs said they were encouraged by Norton's words regarding tribal issues. A number of other senators were present as she outlined her early agenda and goals.

"I am gratified by her very high commitment to Indian issues and look forward to working with her," said John McCain, R-Ariz.

Asked when she would appoint a new assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Norton said that most likely will take a number of months.

Before her election as Colorado attorney general in 1991, Norton served as associate solicitor for Interior, overseeing endangered species and public lands legal issues for the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. She also worked as assistant to the deputy secretary of Agriculture and, from 1979 to 1983, as a senior attorney for the Mountain States Legal Foundation.