RAPID CITY, S.D. – Secretary of the Interior Department Gale Norton’s resignation was met with both cheers and regrets. Environmentalists say good riddance; people in the logging, gas and oil industries are sad to see her leave.
Tribal leaders are also mixed in their reaction to Norton’s departure, but in the Plains, there will be very few if any regrets.
“I don’t think it will be noticeable when she leaves. She hasn’t really done anything for Indian country, not for us out here,” said Avis Little Eagle, vice chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
The BIA is under the umbrella of the Interior Department. Changes in trust reform, BIA reorganization and budget reductions have plagued the BIA and Indian country for a number of years.
“I won’t miss her,” said Rodney Bordeaux, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “I have never known her to support Indian issues. She has done more harm than good.”
The trust reform and BIA reorganization were universally opposed by the Plains and Rocky Mountain tribes. The consultation process failed and a task force set up to revamp trust reform ended as a failure, according to tribal leaders.
“When Gale Norton agreed to the trust reform work group we bought into it; that’s where they defined trust. The only thing Interior wanted in trust was the responsibility for land, and if you watch the budget that is what they are doing,” said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
“I don’t think Indians were on her agenda. She delegated too much authority away to people who were detrimental to Indians,” Frazier said.
“I remember in Albuquerque in 2002 where trust reform was first going on. At that meeting every tribe voiced their concern over BITAM [proposed software that would revamp individual trust accounts]. I think that was the only time she ever met the tribes,” he said.
The BIA has one of the largest budgets within Interior and deals with all issues affecting Indian country: people, education, infrastructure on reservations and economic development. Yet, according to tribal leaders, Indian country gets less attention than land resource development.
“Indians are not a priority: we get cut first. We don’t have an advocate at the cabinet level. Gale Norton just doesn’t get it.
“She can’t advocate for us if she is opposing us. She was trying to open up our land and fighting the Cobell [v . Norton Individual Indian Money trust account] issue. How can we have an advocate at the cabinet level? Without that, we will not get anywhere with this federal government,” Bordeaux said.
Frazier said when he was first on the tribal council in the mid-1990s he asked the BIA what consultation meant. “They said it means to inform.”
That concept, even with the directive from President Bill Clinton to meet with tribes on a government-to-government basis, has not changed the consultation process.
Tribes in the Plains from time to time have advocated for removing the BIA from under Interior’s wing and creating a new cabinet-level department just for Indian country.
“Take the BIA out of the Department of Interior; set up a different department. We are progressing and developing, reawakening, and we need a department because of our treaties and who we are,” Bordeaux said.
“Being in Interior lessens us. We are in there with animals and parks – we need to move forward. Norton, to me, just expanded her resume,” he said.
Little Eagle said Norton was a representative of the Bush administration and represented his agenda. “Opening grassland, exploration in Alaska: that’s been his agenda.”
“I don’t know if we will be able to undo some of the things that have been done in the past five years,” Little Eagle said.
What about a replacement? Frazier mentioned former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s name. “Maybe an Indian there would help,” he said.
Campbell’s name was placed on a list of possible Norton replacements. Sen. Craig Thomas, senior senator from Wyoming, is on the short list. He spoke with the White House about the position, according to staffers. Thomas, 73, is seeking re-election.
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a conservative on environmental issues, has also been part of the speculation.
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., sent a letter to the White House touting the nomination of Campbell, who was considered for the position twice before – once during the Clinton administration, when Campbell was a Democrat, and in 2000 by the Bush administration. Campbell switched parties in 1995.