The first 100 Bush days for Indian Country


It is the custom of politicians in Washington and the journalists who watch them to hand out report cards on the first 100 days of a new administration. The grading picks up afterward at one year, 1,000 days and every day during the countdowns to the presidential and off-year elections.

The Bush administration is receiving solids Bs and a smattering of As, A minuses and Cs generally, but failing marks from many environmental groups. For Indian country, the administration is scoring few high marks and mostly conditional and wait-and-see grades.

A new administration is judged initially against the backdrop of its own campaign promises. Candidate George W. Bush said two things specifically about Native Americans.

The first - that states have jurisdiction over American Indian nations, people and rights - was dead wrong and soon retracted.

The second - that American Indian educational facilities are deplorable and that more federal money would be devoted to the problem under his leadership - was accurate and laudable, and the president is keeping the candidate's word.

The states rights position came from then-Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who was the main policymaker whispering in Bush's ear about American Indian rights and what they should be. The reaction to the candidate's remarks was swift and strident, and he got a crash course in American Indian law from Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

By the time Bush got around to stumping for votes in New Mexico, he was displaying his newfound knowledge about tribal governments and vowing to commit major federal funding to American Indian education. In early April, the president proposed that Congress fund Native education, with an emphasis on construction and repair of facilities, at a level of $500 million.

Bush's Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton has carefully and accurately described tribes to congressional panels as sovereignties with governmental roles and functions. And, in recent weeks, the Bush White House made clear that tribes, as well as states, are the eligible governmental jurisdictions for environmental clean-up monies.

Measuring the experience of the campaign states rights gaffe against the governing record thus far, the administration has earned an S for satisfactory improvement.

For keeping his education promise within the first 100 days, Bush deserves a U for unique among presidents.

One campaign promise - to make oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the answer to America's energy needs - threatens the Gwich'in people and their traditional way of life. While this is less of an administration imperative now that the votes in Congress are more illusive than the Bushies once thought, it remains an administration priority.

Alaska's congressional delegation has tried and failed to get drilling in ANWR approved since the 1980s. The fight to keep ANWR from being opened to oil and gas development is led by the Gwich'in of Arctic Village, the northernmost Native village.

ANWR, one of the last pristine sanctuaries in the United States, is the calving ground for the porcupine caribou herd. The Gwich'in call it the Sacred Place Where Life Begins. Their subsistence and ceremonial life depends on these caribou. Most Alaska Native villages and Canadian Yukon tribes support the Gwich'in. The state and citizens of Alaska and most of its Native corporations favor drilling and stand to make a bundle from it.

The administration gets an I for incomplete on ANWR, because it will press the issue on the Hill again, should it find some 10 additional votes in the Senate and the more than 30 it needs in the House.

In the category of timely selection of a political appointee to deal with Interior's primary Indian responsibilities, the administration gets a B for business as usual.

No administration has named an assistant secretary for Indian affairs before the cherry blossoms bloom along the Potomac River, usually around the Ides of March, and none has had one confirmed within its first 100 days. This administration is no exception. It announced its intention to nominate Neal McCaleb, Chickasaw, on its 87th day, but did not actually nominate him to the Senate by the end of the 100th day.

Some American Indians think the Interior assistant secretary is our representative. That is a mistaken notion. That person, once confirmed, is the president's Indian, not our Indian. He represents the United States, not the Native Peoples. We should wish him well, maintain good diplomatic relations and watch him like a hawk, not because he'll do anything intentionally wrong, but because he cannot possibly do everything right.

McCaleb, if confirmed, will head Interior's largest agency, which consistently receives the poorest marks, Ds and Fs, from institutions that assess federal management performance. McCaleb took the helm of Oklahoma's transportation department in the wake of legendary scandals and rogue roads commissioners. This background may be an excellent match for dealing with the BIA's current management deficiencies.

McCaleb's would-be boss has earned the administration a special grade, M for major league, for the fastest time in drawing fire from American Indian lawyers.

Beginning with her confirmation hearing, the Interior secretary has assured congressional and tribal representatives she will improve the federal government's handling of American Indian trust funds. Norton was not moving fast enough for plaintiffs in the ongoing trust funds lawsuit and they asked a federal judge to hold her in contempt for not protecting Interior employees who discuss the handling of trust funds.

How Norton and McCaleb manage the trust funds and respond to the lawsuit will be the basis for the administration's next important grade, R for respect or D for disrespect.

In several other 100-day initiatives - including federal grants to faith-based groups to provide social services and the review of acceptable levels of arsenic in the drinking water - the Bush administration gets Ws all around for wait and see.

Wait and see how the administration handles the first, second and 550th request from traditional Native religious leaders for federal monies to serve the faithful and faithless alike. Wait and see how the funders respond to requests from the Native American Church and how they factor in NAC's Christian teachings and sacramental use of peyote.

Wait and see what number between three and 20 parts per billion of arsenic in our drinking water will be allowed. When the Bush administration withdrew the Clinton administration's 11th-hour order to reduce the arsenic level to 10 parts per billion by 2006, tribes were as shocked and scared as everyone else.

Arsenic in the drinking water? Is Bush poisoning us? Never mind that the level of arsenic today is the same 50 parts per billion as it has been for the past 50 years and for all of the past administration's eight years. Never mind that the Bush White House said it would study the situation and let science dictate the result, but it would lower the arsenic level significantly. People just aren't all that interested in the fine points when it comes to poison in the tap water.

For the immediate future, American Indians and non-Indians will ingest the cancer-causing arsenic at the current levels. For the ham-fisted, high-handed way the administration dealt with the matter and failed to appreciate the genuine alarm it caused, it deserves an additional grade of N for needs a lot of improvement in its people skills.

Many Native Americans voiced concerns on Earth Day about the administration's environmental rollbacks, some actual and some perceived. In much but not all of Indian country, Native Peoples must wait for the federal government to act.

Some Native nations have the territory and infrastructure to exercise their own regulatory authorities to protect tribal environmental quality.

Tribal lawmakers can limit snowmobiling in geophysically and culturally sensitive places in Indian country; can reduce carbon dioxide emissions on and near reservations, and can protect people, animals, birds, fish and plants in Indian territory. Tribal lawmakers can enact and enforce tribal regulations at a higher standard than current federal requirements and can seek federal enforcement of them as a matter of trust protection.

Now, that would be worth waiting for and seeing.