No tears for end
of Norton’s reign

Mar 21, 2006 3:51 AM

Few tears will be shed in Indian Country over the resignation of Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Norton’s record, both before and during her five-year stint as Interior Secretary, shows little more than contempt for the tribes whose welfare rests largely in the hands of the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Norton’s record on Indian affairs speaks for itself. In the 1980s, Norton worked for the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior. Both departments tried 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.

While she was the attorney general of Colorado, Norton worked to make electronic gaming subject to state-tribal compacts, while allowing the spread of non-Indian casinos without similar restrictions. Norton repeatedly argued that state’s rights overruled tribes’ attempts to establish self-governance, including the right to tax, to permit casinos, to enforce tribal laws, to hunt and fish, and to control lands within the bounds of federally established Indian reservations.

Norton also worked for the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver, an organization devoted to the abolition of Indian treaties and sovereign tribal rights. The organization opposed federal protections for Native American sacred lands, and challenged the right of the Jicarilla Apache Tribe of New Mexico to tax oil and gas extraction on their reservation.

Norton fought to open public lands and national preservation areas to the oil, gas and coal industries. This included trying to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and proposing that millions of acres of land in Alaska be taken away from the Indian tribes who held them as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Norton said she was resigning because she had accomplished her goals and wanted to spend time in the "private sector." Some speculate that she simply wanted to get out of the heat of the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff and his Indian casino clients donated $500,000 to Norton’s agency, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA), which promoted oil drilling in the Arctic refuge.

In Senate hearings, records revealed that Italia Federici, who took over CREA, contacted Norton on behalf of casino gambling interests who did not want her to approve a competing casino operation. Norton ruled for Abramoff’s clients and admitted to having conversations with Abramoff, but denied he had any influence. Right.

President Bush’s choice of Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), to fill Norton’s post isn’t likely to improve matters. Another conservative Westerner, Kempthorne is also an advocate of logging, mining and development on national forest lands, and worked to make the Endangered Species Act easier for developers to skirt around.

How Kempthorne will decide on land-into-trust proposals for the purpose of gaming is anyone’s guess. Indian gaming in his state doesn’t have a great track record, and is limited to tribal bingo halls and pull-tab shops located on reservations. Just last month, he rejected a request by the Shoshone-Bannocks to build an off-reservation casino near Boise.

Some tribal leaders had hopes that Native American and former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) would be asked to fill the position. Campbell’s experience as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and a drafter of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act alone make him far more qualified to oversee the Department of Interior’s single largest agency — the BIA. But why would we expect this administration to propose something sensible?