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Temporary BIA chief tapped

Tribes; top choice overlooked

WASHINGTON - In a move involving plenty of top-level Interior Department political maneuvering, George T. Skibine has become the new head of the BIA.

''He will temporarily assume the responsibilities of the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs,'' Nedra Darling, a spokesman for the BIA, said. ''He will not be the new assistant secretary.''

Instead, Skibine will keep his position as the acting Interior deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Economic Development, a position he's held since 2004, and he'll assume the duties of the assistant secretary as well. He has also directed Interior's Office of Indian Gaming since 1995, and has served in several leadership roles in the BIA over the years.

By accepting the assistant secretary position on top of his duties in the policy and economic arena, Skibine has safeguarded his career status with the federal government and will not be able to be pushed out of his other positions within the department when the next administration inevitably makes a BIA chief appointment. Had he been an official Bush administration political appointee, this would not be the case.

To skirt the political appointee process, Interior Deputy Secretary P. Lynn Scarlett issued a ''delegation of authority action'' for Skibine May 23, following Carl J. Artman's departure from the BIA post. Artman unexpectedly announced his resignation in late April after serving for slightly more than a year as assistant secretary.

Scarlett said in her action that the delegation is ''effective until further notice'' - which could mean until the current White House picks a new political appointee and he or she is confirmed by Congress, or, more likely, until the new presidential administration picks a political appointee to take over the role in 2009. In that case, Skibine will be available to assist with a transition, which will likely be helpful in terms of consistency for tribes.

''George Skibine is an experienced federal manager who is well known and respected throughout Indian country,'' Scarlett said in a statement announcing her action. ''The Office of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education will be in very capable hands during the search for a new assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.''

A longtime career bureaucrat with the BIA, Skibine was not at the top of most tribal shortlists for the position, but he does fit the criteria that many tribal leaders had put forward; namely, he is Indian - an enrolled member of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma - and he appears to be suitably qualified for the position.

''I personally feel that George is eminently qualified to hold the ship on an even keel,'' said W. Ron Allen, secretary of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe. ''He has extensive experience and background with regard to the tribes' agendas and issues.''

Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of NCAI, agreed with that assessment. ''I definitely have confidence in George,'' she said. ''He's been very fair, very forthright, and he tells it how it is. I really respect his candor.''

Skibine, a lawyer by trade, is well versed in Artman's Indian Affairs Modernization Initiative, which serves to enhance communications between tribal leaders and Interior on a number of trust responsibility issues. He's also strong on governance, gaming, education, budgetary and legal issues. In other words, he's not expected to need much of a learning curve.

Overall, Skibine is not likely to be controversial, but tribal leaders who have worked with him in the past on securing BIA compacts for casinos may well bristle at his appointment. He's shaped much of the policy and criteria in the department's economic policy realm.

Some Indian leaders are concerned that because Skibine will now be holding multiple positions within Interior, tribes could get shortchanged, especially if he's not provided with adequate discretion to fill supporting roles under him.

''George has got a tough job ahead of him,'' Allen said. ''His job already was a demanding, 60-hour-a-week job. And they just added 60 more hours.''

Staffing issues already seem to be somewhat sticky at Interior right now - especially those involving Majel Russell, an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe of Montana who had been Artman's principal deputy assistant secretary. She was expected by many to take over upon Artman's departure, and in a May 14 meeting between Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and leaders from NCAI, tribal leaders endorsed her appointment.

However, insiders familiar with Artman's situation have told Indian Country Today that his bosses at Interior had some problems with Russell - problems that were probably one of many factors that played into Artman's earlier-than-anticipated exit from the BIA.

''I think that [Russell] was seen as too strong of a tribalist,'' Allen reflected. ''I even think that's what happened with Carl Artman - there were issues going on where [his superiors] felt he was being too supportive of tribes' agendas.''

Allen doesn't expect that tribes will hold Skibine accountable for the situation involving Russell, but he said the reasons behind her being passed over highlights the Bush administration's continued leeriness of strong tribal advocacy.

Under an agreement between Artman and Russell, she was allowed to work from a satellite office in Montana. The arrangement drew concerns from some of their superiors within the department, but it is unclear exactly why. Neither Artman nor Russell could be reached for official comment.

People who know Russell say she was more than willing to relocate to Washington, D.C., to become assistant secretary. But now, with the Skibine slight clearly visible, some expect her to resign from Interior altogether in short order.

Johnson is more optimistic. ''It's my understanding that Majel will remain at the department in an influential capacity that utilizes her skill set. She will make her own decisions ... but she's well aware of the internal politics.''

Artman, meanwhile, is already hitting the ground running after what someone close to him called his ''rough internal patch'' at the BIA. It was announced in late May that he will serve as a volunteer member of Sen. John McCain's presidential tribal advisory committee, and he is also believed to be fielding Washington lobbying offers and positions with his home tribe, the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

And Skibine is now left to soldier on at the BIA.

''He will march to his own marching orders,'' Allen said. ''And he will have a strong voice for the tribes' perspectives and views - whether it falls on deaf ears, or not.''