The Bush administration's effort to reorganize the long-troubled Bureau of Indian Affairs was greeted skeptically yesterday by 800 Native American leaders summoned by the Interior Department to a one-day summit in New Mexico.
Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. acknowledged that the bureau is not working effectively and urged the tribal leaders to support the administration's proposal for restructuring the bureau "in a way that strengthens it."
Lujan, a former House member from New Mexico who was born on a reservation in the state, rejected a recent proposal by a Senate subcommittee that recommended BIA be abolished because it is so riddled by incompetence and inefficiencies. Instead, he called for changing the role of the assistant interior secretary in charge of the BIA, saying he should be divorced from the "day-to-day management" of the government's $3.3 billion-a-year Indian programs.
The programs, Lujan said, should be managed by the heads of seven revamped offices in the bureau, including a new office of self-determination policy, part of a federal effort to grant more power to tribal governments.
The secretary said his change would free the assistant secretary to spend more time developing policies.
Lujan said this would give federal attention to special programs, such as Indian education efforts, which are among his top priorities.
But Lujan's proposal, which would also give greater responsibilities to a layer of officials under the assistant secretary, ran into objections from many Indian leaders and some politicians in Washington.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who chaired a special investigative committee last year that found rampant abuse in the BIA and tribal governments, was skeptical. "I'm not overly enthused about it," he said yesterday. "It sounds like some restructuring, but with same old agency and personnel."
"What they're doing with this proposal is creating additional layers of bureaucracy," said Wendell Chino, president of the Mescalero Apaches, a New Mexico tribe. He dismissed the Lujan restructuring as "just window dressing" and said the government is "misreading the tribes by making this proposal."
The tribes want direct funding and less bureaucracy, Chino said. "This is not objective proposal; it is subjective," he said. "The bureaucrats are making a proposal about how the bureaucracy should be reorganized."
Ernie Lovato, governor of the Santo Domingo Pueblo, another New Mexico tribe, expressed disappointment that tribal leaders had not been consulted before Lujan announced his proposal yesterday in Albuquerque.
"I feel really frustrated sitting here," he said. "They are treating us like little children, just lecturing us."
Edward K. Thomas, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian tribes of Alaska, said he, too, feared the growth of the BIA bureaucracy.
"We can't live with the status quo," he said, adding that he applauded Lujan's effort to focus attention on Indian concerns.
Steven Goldstein, a Lujan spokesman, said the secretary believed his proposal was "well received" and that some of the restructuring could begin without new legislation. Other changes would need approval of congressional appropriations committees, Goldstein said.
"This is an issue of great importance to Manuel Lujan," Goldstein said. "In some sense, he wants this to be his legacy."
Special correspondent Susan Landon contributed to this report from Albuquerque.