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Washington in Brief

Dorgan demands a hurry-up from Interior on N.D. oil, gas approvals

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., issued a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs report June 6 excoriating the BIA as a constant obstacle to energy development on tribal lands in North Dakota, along with a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne demanding immediate action to surmount the problems.

Interior has responded, and efforts are going forward to schedule a meeting between Kempthorne, the North Dakota senator and North Dakota tribal leaders, according to a Dorgan spokesman.

On June 11, 1996, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the current Republican entry in the November presidential elections, addressed the BIA's managerial follies over the trust funds as then-chairman of the SCIA: ''The days of BIA mismanagement may be numbered. ... Patience in Congress is very thin.''

The Dorgan report and letter to Kempthorne made it plain that if Congress or McCain have any patience left for bureau management practice 12 years later, he does not. Continuing an often frustrated campaign to reform the bureau during his tenure as SCIA chairman - and notwithstanding the home-state focus of the report, his letter asserts for Kempthorne that he seeks bureau-wide reform for the benefit of every tribe - Dorgan stated that the BIA's ''demonstrated incompetence'' is canceling any opportunity for North Dakota tribes to prosper from proven energy resources on their lands.

The specific incompetencies alleged in the report are dramatic understaffing in BIA realty compared to expressed levels of interest in tribal oil and gas development, a 49-step lease and permit compliance process compared with a four-step process for private lands in North Dakota, and critical leadership vacancies nationally and in North Dakota.

In his letter to Kempthorne, Dorgan explained that 49 lucrative oil-drilling rigs operate on private lands that border the Fort Berthold reservation on three sides, but only one operates within it. ''Frankly, none of this makes any sense to me. To have aggressive oil development occurring virtually everywhere except on Indian lands is denying Native Americans the opportunities they should expect to be receiving.''

Dorgan also continued a theme that emerged, more vehemently, at a recent committee hearing: ''The BIA is a bureaucratic mess that needs to be reorganized and re-energized. If that proves impossible, then maybe it ought to be replaced with an organization that will take effective action to help improve the lives of American Indians.''

Committee subpoena promised for OMB over BIA jails

In unscheduled remarks before a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing June 6, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he hopes to invoke the committee's subpoena powers to force release of a report on BIA jails.

The Office of Management and Budget, the White House liaison with Congress on all-important fiscal and management allocation issues, withheld the report in May after numerous prior delays, Dorgan said. He implied that the Interior Department and its subordinate agency, the BIA, steered the decision to suppress a public-interest, taxpayer-funded report that happens to be highly critical of them. ''It is outrageous and arrogant of the BIA and the Interior Department to withhold it.''

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He added that it's ''tough luck'' if the OMB doesn't like being subpoenaed.

He said a vote of the committee to issue the OMB a subpoena could come at the next SCIA business meeting, which has not been scheduled.

BIA detention facilities became the subject of withering criticism from Interior's Office of Inspector General in 2004. In the turbulent wake of the ''Neither Safe Nor Secure'' reports, other critics have cited a shortfall in congressional funding of BIA law enforcement as a leading reason for the mostly grim findings. Dorgan and other lawmakers have responded in part by pressing agency officials to account for a perceived lack of fight in their funding requests to the administration.

Gila River ratifies U.N. Declaration on Indigenous Rights

The Gila River Indian Community Council on May 21 became the first federally recognized tribe known to have ratified the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of Sept. 13, 2007, according to an online release from Shannon Rivers, an Akimel O'odham (formerly Pima) tribal community member.

The sole priority claimed by Rivers for Gila River could not be verified to a perfect certainty before press time, but council secretary Kristina Morago confirmed a 12 - 0 vote of the Gila River governing body for a resolution affirming the declaration. The resolution ''recognizes and affirms'' the U.N. declaration ''as an expression of the minimum [emphasis in the original] standards of recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and members of the Gila River Indian Community.'' It also authorizes ''all steps necessary'' for the governor to carry out the resolution's intent.

The declaration, acclaimed by indigenous peoples worldwide, is not legally binding on national governments. But only four U.N. member nations, including the United States, have declined to ratify it.

In language suited to the singular occasion, Rivers hailed the vote as ''a precedent-setting, hallmark move of commitment and solidarity with Indigenous Peoples worldwide.''

He credited the efforts of numerous groups and individuals leading up to the occasion, and noted that community members have worked behind the scenes with ''neighboring relatives, concurrently affirming its inherent right to self-determination and standing in solidarity with the Pee-Posh, Salt River, Tohono O'otham, Ak-Chin and O'othams relatives located south of the United States-Mexico border.''

Rivers gave it as his hope that the declaration's 46 articles become customary law, and invited other first nations to follow Gila River's example.

A press release from the governing community council had not become available at press time.