Indians and Court unite to tongue-lash Interior
A "day-long tongue-lashing" from tribal leaders is the way the papers described Interior Department's first consultation on its plan for fixing the massive Indian trust funds debacle. Simultaneously, a federal judge was no less caustic in denouncing the Department for its interpretation of his recent order to Interior to protect the accounts from Internet hacking.
The Indian leaders were responding to Interior's surprise proposal to remove management of Indian trust money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and thus create a new Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management, also within the Department of Interior. This highly controversial decision, legally tendered to the court as solution to grievances, is considered widely by American Indian leadership as de-basement of Indian standing and a severe departure from the expected government-to-government consultation structures that had become expected from the federal bureaucracy.
In Albuquerque, about 500 Indians faced Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb in the first of a series of seven after-the-fact consultations. More than fifty tribal leaders, including all 19 Pueblos, the Navajo president and many others, spoke to the embattled officials. Their unanimous answer was an unmistakable "No." The sense of insult expressed was palpable and genuine. Norton expressed the wish to take their recommendations but asserted that the basic plan as presented to the federal court can not be pulled back now.
Meanwhile, as tragic comedy turned to farce, the Interior's leadership apparently and seriously over-reacted to the order by Judge Royce Lamberth to "disconnect" the trust account computer systems. The judge, as reported nationally all last week, was responding to the latest set of errors, after his court-ordered hacker walked anonymously all over the Bureau's system. The hacker proved that the Indian trust accounts were completely assailable from any outside phone line. Disconnect it from the Internet, said the judge.
But the judge did not mean for the Secretary to shut down the whole of Interior's systems connections to the Internet, which she did, wreaking substantial havoc on all kinds of ongoing and necessary work by a variety of federal agencies. The precipitous shut down further punished Indian trust account holders all over again by holding up perhaps as much as $15 million in some 43,000 accounts two weeks before the most expensive family season of the year. Interior's 70,000 employees got paid by faxing or mailing in hand-written statements.
The federal lawyers accused Interior of misunderstanding the order. Judge Lamberth could hardly hide his suspicion when he said, "I don't know why you decided to disconnect all your systems." To be sure, Interior jumped through the hoop the other way quickly enough, seeking injunctions to open up communications with affected agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the Nation Fire Information Center, although at press time individual account holders had not received their payments.
So it goes with Interior. From where we sit, both tongue-lashings were entirely justified. Hounded by an Indian trust system in collision course with the federal courts, Secretary Norton lashed out at the tribes. She seems intent on playing hardball with Indian country. The down-your-throat approach to splitting the BIA, with its disrespectful consultation-as-afterthought, was clearly a way to channel the pain, like saying, "You wanted a change, well, here it is!"
Then to misread a simple order clearly focused on protecting the security of trust accounts to mean a complete institutional disconnect; this seems another way of turning the blame on the court. Again, like saying, "See, now they are making you suffer by making me do this."
Either way, it is bureaucratic hardball of the most callous type. The moment is past when such attitudes can pass for Indian policy. The Indian population may appear irrelevant to some, but it is increasingly well tuned to political maneuverings and doubletalk whose obvious goal is obfuscation. The national leadership is often fractious with each other on internal issues but, increasingly, questions of national impact are impeccably analyzed and addressed. Then, too, these days, national Indian leaders are in constant touch with each other, via several important networks and organizations.
A fuller understanding of potentials and imperatives of Indian country needs to permeate the top echelon of the federal Indian policy group. Norton, McCaleb, and now, again, Ross Swimmer, among others, need to seriously work to align with Indian country thinking and not be so presumptuous of their proposals or antagonistic to comment and critique. Somehow a true dialogue must be established. If policy-makers would only explore the realities behind the Indian leadership's opinions, they would welcome Indian country's vibrant trajectory -- its recuperation and re-empowerment -- which, if sustained and encouraged, could be a shining example to the world.
The human spirit is vitalized by the promise of justice attainable. This is the resilient quest of America and springboard of its numerous and complex powers. Good, wise signals are called for at this moment in history, and most importantly, on Indian affairs. How America treats its first governments and peoples is of utmost significance to the whole wide world. Rather than confusion and obtuseness, rather than the current game of poke and smile, Republican Indian affairs managers should set the moral tone for the country's dealings with its most impoverished and dispossessed group. In fact, they should work to show the world at large that tribal cultural and economic success is as American as turkey, corn and pumpkin pie.