January 10, 2001

Norton at Interior - fairness for Indians, or Watt now?

by Suzan Shown Harjo

The good news is that former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., will not be Interior

The bad news is that Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., won't be either.

The big news is that Colorado lawyer Gale A. Norton was tapped for the job,
but leading environmentalists say she won¹t be confirmed without a fight.

Environmentalists also campaigned against Campbell. So did anti-Indians and
wing nuts, inside and outside of Interior. But, he was the top contender for the
post until December, when Gorton was declared the loser in his senatorial race
and became an out-of-work member of the club to be salted away in the new
administration. Gorton was knocked out of the running by Indians and
environmentalists, along with his own disinterest in the position.

Campbell was taken out of the race for Interior because the Republican loss
in Washington produced the 50-50 split in the Senate, making it essential for
sitting senators on both sides of the aisle to stay put.

While Campbell was being considered, Colorado Republicans began jockeying
for a daisy chain of federal and state offices that would have opened up once
he moved to Interior. When there was no Senate seat to fill, the Bush-Cheney
transition smoothed the many ruffled feathers in the state by promising that the
Interior position would go to a Coloradan with conservative credentials.

Norton met all the tests. She cut her teeth at the Mountain States Legal
Foundation in Denver for the first four years of her legal career. Her boss was
James Watt, who later peddled the organization¹s anti-Indian,
anti-environmental agenda as the Reagan administration's first Interior
secretary. (Today, Watt is in private practice in Vice President-elect Dick
Cheney's home state, Wyoming.)

Devoted to the abolition of Indian treaties and sovereign tribal rights,
Mountain States was founded in very large part to counter gains made by
Indians in the courts, in Congress and in the Nixon and Ford administrations. It
has opposed federal protections for Native American sacred lands, even
working against Interior's rule on voluntary compliance to halt the desecration
and erosion of Devil's Tower in Wyoming.

A Reagan political appointee from 1984 to 1987, Norton worked at Agriculture
and then Interior as solicitor for conservation and wildlife. Both departments
during those years were attempting to end Indian programs or turn them over
to the states; to prevent any lands from being returned to or acquired by
tribes; and to impede Native religious freedom. Both of the Reagan
administrations tried to cut the federal Indian budget by one-third.

Norton has rightly taken exception to those who brand her guilty because of
her associations of long ago. In fairness, it must be noted that no evidence has
surfaced to date of any direct involvement by Norton in anti-Indian activities.
(There are broad hints that such will be produced before her confirmation
hearing, and the truth of that will be known soon enough.)

Campbell praises Norton as a good choice. Ute officials in Colorado give her
high marks on issues affecting their tribes. Boosters laud her work on the tribal
water rights settlement and development project, Animas La Plata, which was
opposed by most environmentalists and was Exhibit A in their brief against

But it was all environment and no Indians Dec. 29, when President-elect
George W. Bush introduced Norton and his choices to run three other
departments with significant Indian obligations - Education, Health & Human
Services and Veterans Affairs. It was odd and sad that Native Peoples did not
merit a single reference during the entire press conference.

Money alone should have dictated a mention in relation to Interior, where the
Indian budget is the largest of all its agencies and where tribal gaming
businesses have to tithe to the federal government. Since Native people still
suffer from the poorest health conditions and the lowest level of educational
attainment in the country, someone might have pledged to do something about
that. And shame on everyone who passed up the opportunity to acknowledge
the distinguished and disproportionately high service of Indian veterans in all
U.S. wars.

Perhaps the new folks will listen to Campbell and some of his fellow senators
with Indian policy expertise on ways to better Native lives and to enhance
diplomatic relations in Indian country.

In passing over Campbell, the president-elect missed his chance to strike a
big-time blow for diversity. Not only would Campbell have been the first Native
American to run Interior, but his would have been one of the few picks of the
incoming administration to actually be embraced by a majority of the group
represented by the nominee.

Norton, if confirmed, will be the first woman to head Interior, which is no small
thing. Nearly as old as the republic itself, the agency is definitely showing the
signs of long-term, white male inbreeding. For 150 years, Interior has been the
United States' strong arm in charge of controlling both Indian resources and
Native Peoples.

It is not likely that Norton fully appreciates the history she will encounter and
the Indian legal obligations she will have as Interior secretary. Before being
legally bound to consult with Native leaders, she would be well served to meet
with Native women and men now on how to avoid repeating Interior¹s sorry
past and how to fulfill her future duties.

Editor's note: Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is
president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for
Indian Country Today.