ABERDEEN, S.D. - Leaders of Great Plains tribes who had gathered Sept. 28 to meet with BIA officials walked out when they realized that Assistant Secretary Carl Artman would not be present.
Tribal leaders had expected some high-ranking official from the BIA, namely Artman, to attend. The meeting was called to gather ideas and information about the bureau's proposed modernization.
Thirteen members of the 16-member Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association had held a planning session the day before and they expected Artman to be present at the Sept. 28 meeting. Local BIA officials were present, as was Majel Russell, principal deputy assistant secretary.
When the chairmen learned that Artman would not be in attendance, they asked all BIA officials to leave the meeting room. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Ron His Horse is Thunder then facilitated a meeting; and after each chairman had his or her say, they voted to walk out.
His Horse is Thunder said because of the ''disrespect'' the BIA showed to the elected tribal leadership and to the tribes who signed the treaties by not sending top-level decision-makers, the tribal leadership voted with their feet and walked out.
''As tribal leaders, we expected their leaders to come in. These consultation meetings are held and we are the last ones to know what is going on,'' said Myra Pearson, chairman of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe.
''We found it an insult that they sent their support staff.''
Michael Jandreau, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and the elder statesmen of the tribal chairmen in the Great Plains, said, ''Today the BIA has acted disrespectfully toward tribally elected leaders and at the very minimum they should have sent the assistant secretary to meet with tribal leaders.''
The tribal leaders have requested another meeting with Artman.
Artman told Indian Country Today that he will try to make that meeting as long as the dates do not conflict with his schedule.
''I heard the tribal leaders loud and clear in the Dakotas. We will have a meeting specifically to talk about the modernization,'' he said.
''What you saw in South Dakota isn't represented everywhere.''
Meetings have taken place in the different regions; the final meeting was to take place in the Great Plains.
''I understand where the tribal leaders are coming from. It shows a sign that there is a great interest in this. With that kind of interest, I will try my darndest to meet with them,'' he said.
''There was no sign of disrespect. We would not overtly try to offend the tribal leaders; that is my last intent, never an intent. If that is what they left with it was mistaken,'' Artman said.
Artman has asked the tribes across the nation for input that would help modernize the BIA because in the next few years many retirements will take place; and when those retirees leave, so will a vast amount of knowledge of Indian country and the bureau's workings in relationship to the tribes.
He also said Congress will not increase the BIA budget anytime in the future, so some creative action must be taken. He added that he wants to hear suggestions and ideas from the tribal leaders.
''The raw facts are while we are trying to increase the budget, they [Congress] decrease the budget,'' Artman said.
''In the next five years, a lot of people are eligible for retirement, and if all of those chose to retire we will be in a world of hurt. We want to make sure we are thinking ahead of those issues.
''It's always good to try to remain evolutionary and change to the surroundings. We are not your father's BIA or your grandfather's BIA; we have seen a lot of change with gaming compacting and the way that cities, counties, states and tribes relate,'' he said.
Artman said that each region is different: some tribes that are self-governed don't want to see much change, while others have concerns over economic development and gaming and energy. He said the BIA is hearing from some tribes that they want the freedom to run things themselves.
Artman said that other meetings have been productive even though there was some hesitation - not resistance - on the tribes' part.
''I can understand why the hesitation. We are not the same old BIA; we should be changing how we communicate with tribes.
''This [modernization] may be viewed with some suspicion, but this is something we need to work on. This is the BIA reaching out to tribes and we ask, 'How can we make this better for you?''' Artman said.
Discussions on this issue will take place at the National Congress of American Indians convention in Denver, Nov. 11 - 16, Artman said.