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Savilla: Bring back our commissioner

This writing is about a farce called an assistant secretary for Indian Affairs (AS-IA). I was compelled to write after reading a report in this paper, ''Clock ticking to replace BIA chief'' [Vol. 27, Iss. 50], by Rob Capriccioso. The National Congress of American Indians wanted a quick replacement for the departing Carl Artman, by ''a qualified, knowledgeable Native American.'' Not so fast, I say.

The story, and comments made by NCAI, reflects a lack of knowledge of how Washington really works. They actually thought the president would nominate someone who really wanted to help American Indian people.

In 1973, a small group of Indian consultants met with the BIA to develop new policies that would change how the BIA served the people. First, they wanted to do away with the legislated commissioner of Indian Affairs, who was apparently too much of an advocate for tribes, and the secretary had no control over him. He couldn't fire him, because the position was created by congressional legislation. They would replace Commissioner Louie Bruce with an AS-IA, who would be under the total direction of the secretary.

The National Tribal Chairmen's Association heard only rumors of the new plans, so in 1973 the board of directors requested a meeting with top-level BIA officials. They did meet, and the BIA explained their thinking to the board. Then the board had an informal dinner meeting that evening to consider what they had heard. Wendell Chino was NTCA's president at that time. One of the high-ranking BIA officials, Lafollette Butler, came to our dinner. He sat and listened while the board discussed what they had heard. Their consensus was that if the BIA's plans were implemented, it would be bad for all tribes. They didn't like the idea of getting rid of the commissioner. Chino banged the table with his fist and said, ''The BIA is still our enemy!''

Butler stood up and said, ''Listen to me. You're all smart men. I'll bet not one of you has more than a BIA high school education, yet you're doing more for Indian people than these wise guys who are making up all these new plans. I think you're right to challenge the BIA in what they want to do, but the BIA is not the one to blame for these new ideas.''

He went on. ''The ones with new ideas and plans for your future are what I call the educated ignorant Indians. They know so much, yet know so little. They're a new generation of Indians with two or three years of college, but no education in Indian matters, yet they know it all. The secretary is listening to them. They are planning the future for you. Your enemy is these educated Indians who think they know what's best for you. They are proof that an education doesn't guarantee intelligence. They are your real enemy.''

Within the next year, Butler retired from government service because of turmoil within the BIA. Forrest Gerard, the first AS-IA, resigned rather than put up with the new regime. Marvin Franklin, Iowa, was the second assistant secretary. He resigned after a year when Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton trashed his Indian programs budget. He was told, ''You do not make the budget. You will present the budget that OMB [Office of Management and Budget] prepares for you.'' Before, the commissioner of Indian Affairs had always developed the BIA budget.

The first AS-IA took office in 1974. Since then, there has been a long procession of AS-IAs who took the job full of hope and a firm commitment to serve the tribes, but instead found themselves to be lackeys who were expected to serve the ambitions of the president. In a phrase, they could do it the president's way or take the highway back home. To their credit, almost all of those Native men took the highway rather than betray Indian people.

What I would say to any Native person who is considering the AS-IA position is to decline a nomination to be the new AS-IA. While it seems to be an honor, it is a fleeting one. You would not have a free hand in helping tribes.

Since 1974, I have watched a long line of sincere men enter full of hope and ideas, only to leave disillusioned and targets of tribal dissidents. Please believe me. It would not make a difference if the AS-IA was an Indian or a non-Indian, a Democrat or Republican. This would happen regardless of which political party was in power. I suggest you refuse the nomination while you still have your honor and integrity.

In its sad history, only three men have held the job longer than one year. Eddie Brown, Tohono O'odham, served for four years with Secretary Manuel Chavez. The next-longest service was by Ross Swimmer, Oklahoma Cherokee, who lasted two and a half years. Ken Smith, Warm Springs, Ore., served two years. All the rest resigned after one year or less. Then things got worse. The following came and left just since the year 2000, eight AS-IAs in eight years: Kevin Gover, Michael Anderson, James McDevitt, Neil McCaleb, Aurene M. Martin, David W. Anderson, James A. Cason and Carl Artman.

The people who agreed to serve were honest and sincere, but they forgot their political party's golden rule: ''If appointed to a position in the president's administration, you must be loyal to the party and work at the pleasure of the president.'' When I warned one recent appointee of this golden rule, he said he had been promised that he could make changes and suggestions to improve the BIA's service to Indian people. He quickly learned otherwise. Their motto seems to be, ''Promises are made to be broken.''

All political appointees to the position of assistant secretary for Indian Affairs have been required to carry out the mandates and policies of the president, and with little input or consultation by or with tribal leadership. It's time to put an end to this foolishness, and to reinstate the position of commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Elmer M. Savilla, Quechan, is a writer and former president of the Quechan Nation. He served as the president of Confederated Tribes of the Lower Colorado River, and of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. He is the former executive director of the Inter-Tribal Council of California and of the National Tribal Chairmen's Association.