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Tribes consider candidates for assistant secretary

WASHINGTON - As tribal delegates and American Indian people from across the nation gathered in Washington to participate in events surrounding the inauguration of George W. Bush, potential candidates for assistant secretary for Indian affairs spoke to tribal leaders and representatives in a meeting held before festivities.

While only a few candidates have been rumored to be interested in the job since President Bush's transition began, a number of new names emerged, representing a broad range of experience.

Edward Thomas, Tlingit and Haida, president of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council in Alaska, stepped forward early in the process and has continued his call for support. Thomas previously served as director of Indian education for the Ketchikan School District and executive director of the Ketchikan Indian Corp. Thomas says that his ability to work in a bipartisan manner makes him an excellent candidate for the job.

James Martin, Poarch Creek, who had emerged as an early candidate, is executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), a regional inter-tribal organization. Martin is a former tribal administrator for the Poarch Creek tribe in Alabama.

"Anything that the BIA has been involved in the last 10 years, I have been involved in," Martin said. "As executive director of USET, I am a coalition builder and a technician."

Gaiaskibos, Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa, a new candidate, is chairman of his tribe in Wisconsin and former president of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest national Indian organization. Chairman Gaiaskibos says his experience as a tribal leader and his involvement with national tribal issues makes him uniquely qualified.

Phil Hogan, Oglala Lakota, is a former U.S attorney for South Dakota and was the first director of the Office of American Indian Trust in the Department of Interior during the first Bush administration. Hogan also served on the National Indian Gaming Commission.

"As this individual is selected, it should be someone with the credibility and understanding of Indian law," Hogan said. "I believe I bring that credibility."

David Tippeconnic, Comanche/Cherokee, also a new candidate, is former president of Phillips 66 Petroleum Corp. and Citco Petroleum. He grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Tippeconnic says his business experience will bring a new perspective and approach to the job.

The last candidate to speak was Jana McKeag, an attorney who formerly served on the National Indian Gaming Commission. McKeag said she would promote a policy of change if she were to be appointed.

"I think the BIA priorities, policies and budget have not really responded to the 21st century-needs of tribes," McKeag said. " I hope to make a difference."

The assistant secretary will serve under Interior Secretary Gale Norton - yet to be confirmed - and is responsible for oversight of much of the federal government's trust responsibilities to tribal governments and Indian people.

Susan Masten, president of the National Congress of American Indians, who moderated the meeting, expressed her hopes that a decision on who will be assistant secretary will be made in a timely manner.

"We want this process to be expedited so we are not in the same position as we had with Ada Deer," said Masten.

Masten referred to when the Clinton administration took over in 1993. The position of assistant secretary was not filled until June of that year with the appointment of Deer, nearly five months into Clinton's first term.

Until 1973, the BIA operated under an Interior Department assistant secretary whose principle responsibility was land and water resources or other Interior programs. Indian affairs was a secondary responsibility and tribal leaders charged that many times Indian goals and objectives were opposed by other Interior agencies.

The situation was partially resolved in 1973 when Morris Thompson became commissioner of Indian Affairs and was made directly responsible to the secretary of the Interior. Finally in 1977, the position of assistant secretary for Indian affairs was created, providing the bureau with a voice in policy matters within the Interior, at the level of the secretary.

Forrest Gerard, Blackfeet, was first to fill the position. Kevin Gover, Pawnee, served as assistant secretary for the last two years of the Clinton administration.