For more than 150 years, the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs has been ground zero for carrying out the government's long-established trust responsibility for tribes.
"Tribes see the BIA as the single most important trustee-delegate agency within the entire governmental structure," said Charles Jackson, Warm Springs Tribe of Oregon's secretary/treasurer and chairman of the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association.
And the most important job within the Bureau of Indian Affairs is the person appointed to its top post, the assistant secretary of Indian affairs. So when Neal McCaleb announced his unexpected resignation Thursday, it left many tribal leaders wary of the bureau's future.
McCaleb's departure next month comes at one of most precarious times in the history of the 178-year-old Bureau of Indian Affairs because Interior Secretary Gale Norton's trust-reform advisers are in the throes of what's expected to be a massive reorganization of the bureau.
McCaleb was the conduit for tribal input.
He resigned because "the constraints imposed by ever-present litigation have taken their toll."
In September, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth cited Norton and McCaleb on five contempt counts as part of a 6-year-old class-action battle by American Indian landowners against the Interior Department.
Meanwhile, Norton's reform team is preparing a Jan. 6 deadline report for Lamberth on how the department plans to administer trust funds and carry out a historical accounting of trust accounts.
"I'm concerned about what that means for timing and being able to deal with the implementation of trust reform," said Susan Masten, Yurok Tribe chairwoman of California. "Indian Country needs a chance to communicate on the elements of that report. January is around the corner, and we haven't had that opportunity."
The Cobell vs. Norton lawsuit has spurred the Interior Department to take far-reaching measures. Norton proposed last November a plan to strip the bureau of its trust duties.
The last significant crisis to befall the bureau occurred during the 1950s when Congress passed a measure to terminate tribes' "status as wards of the government" and to abolish all bureau offices.
"This is by far the issue in Indian Country," said Osage Chief Jim Gray of Oklahoma. "It raises the question of what kind of role does BIA want to play in the future governance of tribes," who are all in different stages of development with bureau guidance.
Despite its historical management problems, the bureau has always played a crucial role for tribes. It was created within the War Department in 1824 and a commissioner of Indian affairs position was established in 1832.
"Its role is extremely important because it's that part of the federal government that has the daily policy contact with tribes," said Joe Christie, a retired bureau senior executive with 30 years of federal service. "It's the lead agency that sets the tone for issues that come to bear, whether you're talking about the Indian Health Service, HUD, ANA (Administration for Native Americans) or the Department of Education."
The Interior Department took control of the bureau in 1849. The need for a stronger voice for Native issues was recognized again in 1977, when the commissioner of Indian affairs job was elevated to an assistant secretary level.
"One of the most significant things this did is it brought Indian affairs to the table where policy matters affecting Indians were discussed and framed," said Forrest Gerard, the first person to hold the job.
Seven people have held the demanding government job that represents 560 federally recognized tribes - and nearly half resigned unexpectedly. "It was probably the most challenging, frustrating and fulfilling experience in my professional career," said Gerard, who was the first to resign.
Ada Deere, the only woman appointed to the job, quit during the Clinton administration.
McCaleb's is the third resignation.
"It's shocking," said Arlen Shoyo, Eastern Shoshone Tribe vice chairman of Wyoming. "He just got the position. I didn't think he would resign that quick."
Tribal advocates now hope President Bush appoints someone willing and able to handle the challenge.
"The department needs to find a credible spokesperson, someone who has a decision-making role in the departmental process, someone who can build a positive relationship with the tribes and the tribal organizations around the country," said Jackson of the InterTribal Monitoring Association.
Bureau reform needs to be a joint effort, he said, echoing other tribal leaders refrain.
Yet McCaleb's departure punctures those hopes, said Christie. In his void, McCaleb will leave behind high-ranking bureau representatives assigned to temporary jobs and others who simply lack experience and political awareness.
So the people who will muscle reform are those who have been long at odds with tribes in reform efforts, said Christie. "That means OST (Office of Special Trustee) and the Department of Interior will set tone, direction and land policy for the BIA."
Jodi Rave Lee is a reporter specializing in American Indian issues at the Lincoln Journal Star. She can be reached at (402) 473-7240 or firstname.lastname@example.org.