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Total disconnect on tribal-federal relations

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Gale Norton and Neal McCaleb's proposed BIA reorganization already had many tribal leaders breathing fire -- but when the judge in the Tribal Trust accounts case pulled the plug on the Trust system's computer network at the BIA, it was virtual metaphor. The whole boondoggle was starkly revealed. Over a century of dishonor, dishonesty and disregard suddenly crashed unto itself.

The move has Indian country stunned. Many crucial operations are paralyzed, including payroll and account payments, law enforcement, social, resource management and education services. There is disruption in communications services by other agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey. Meanwhile, as crisis looms, Secretary Norton is on trial for contempt while the judge on the case calls Interior officials, "liars." Among other things, he accuses Norton of filing a false report that hid major problems her department is having with the computer system that would supposedly solve the problem of missing billions in 300,000 individual Indian and tribal accounts.

While the Clinton administration reflected some smoky mirrors toward Indian country, it also connected with tribal affairs on many issues. Under President Clinton, increasingly throughout his eight years in office, Native leadership got used to substantial open access to federal departments and agencies. Clinton even traveled to two large Indian nations, bringing the presidential train to Sioux and Navajo country. Consultation with tribes was exalted as good for the country and serious discussions were possible. President Bush's team, however, seems intent on cracking some of those mirrors. Well-constructed personal links and communications bridges to the federal system, built on respect for the language, if not always the reality of government-to-government relations, are snapping fast.

Admittedly, Gale Norton and Neal McCaleb inherited a mess, as far as the Trust case goes, just as their predecessors did, but what has angered (again) federal court Judge Royce C. Lamberth is how little they have done to help solve the problem during their own time in office. Judge Lamberth's authorized hacking of the Interior computer system in order to test its reliability and security has done more to crystallize the problem than anything in recent memory. His hackers broke right into the $40 million computer system, accessed the most intimate information and even found they could move money and change and create accounts at will. So much for any pretense of privacy, security or vigilance against corruption. Files are known to have disappeared and no one can tell how much money, supposedly held in trust by the federal government, Indian people have lost as a result. One thing: apparently, the bureau keeps up its traditions. During the previous administration, 162 boxes of relevant documents were shredded and the government covered it up for three months.

As Norton's contempt trial got under way, it appeared the long nightmare might now be turning on its source. The Secretary got started with a spirited challenge to the reports of Joseph S. Kieffer III, the court monitor who has pieced together the most damaging evidence of widespread chaotic practice involving the Trust accounts. Attorneys for the Indian account holders loved the detailed statement by Norton's lawyer. It throws the case wide open to cross-examination and they have dozens of witnesses lined up. As the judge warned, the comprehensive attack by Norton could pave the way "for a more embarrassing trial."

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At the National Congress of American Indians' (NCAI's) recent gathering the mood was defiance and the big complaint was the apparent lack of open relations with the new administration. The main bone of contention was the complete lack of consultation with tribes by Interior before announcing a major new split of BIA functions into two distinct bureaus. A consultation process announced by McCaleb at the Spokane conference was severely criticized as, "after the fact." Consultation, tribes rightfully charge, is rather meaningless now. The very concept of splitting the bureau should have been circulated and discussed before, not after, the actual decision. This would be common sense practice in any true government to government, sovereign to sovereign relation.

NCAI put up Tex Hall as its new president and spokesperson. Hall is a firm-talking, well-respected tribal chairman who immediately called for an action strategy to go beyond belated consultation. "Focus on the money," he told tribes, and put up a "legislation and litigation strategy." Already, at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, chairman and vice-chairman Senators Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) are cautioning colleagues to go slow in appropriations for the reorganization plan.

A cycle of consultations on the plan to split the Bureau, with the participation of Norton and other officials, was offered at NCAI by Neal McCaleb. Nevertheless, it will be a quick cycle and at least initially, written comments were to be delivered to Interior by January 15th, not even six weeks, and spanning the holidays. It feels like the old cartoon of the Natives negotiating development issues with bureaucrats who are already sitting in the bulldozer's bucket.

This disconnect is deep and goes beyond cyberspace. On the Native America Calling radio program, which is a sort of direct consultation with Indian country, McCaleb baffled listeners when he claimed that an unanimous NCAI resolution calling for the withdrawal of the proposed BIA split, "did not say that."

NCAI's new president, Ted Hall, resolutely responded that the resolution is, "a clear message. "Small tribes, medium tribes, large, land-based tribes, all over, Indian country is 100 percent opposed to the new bureau."

Of what good is consultation, Indian country wonders, when bureaucrats simply don't want to listen?