Washington After a week of long and pointed questioning during confirmation hearings, Gale Norton, Bush's nominee for Interior secretary, is on her way to assuming control of the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
After being marked as one of President Bush's most controversial nominees, Norton calmly answered most questions from Democrats who criticized her record. While much questioning focused on the environment and the Endangered Species Act, Norton was asked about her position on tribal sovereignty and tribal self-governance.
Since her new responsibilities include oversight of the BIA, members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources asked how Norton views tribal government and the federal trust responsibility.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., asked her position on state rights over tribal self-governance and how she views the state-tribal relationship. While Norton shed some light on the subject, she was a bit vague.
"These are complex legal questions," Norton said. "Decisions of government are best made by those who are affected. ... Self-governance is important and I support that as a concept."
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., continued with questions about the president's campaign promise regarding Indian education. Bush has promised pueblo leaders he would request $1 billion in funds for Indian schools in his first budget proposal to Congress. Domenici cited the dilapidated condition of many Indian schools across the country and called on Norton to help make the president's promise a reality. Norton said she expects the issue to be one of her first priorities.
The ongoing dispute over tribal trust funds emerged in questioning. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., who supports Norton's nomination, voiced his continuing frustrations over the issue and concern that current problems are not being resolved.
"I'm still not sure they are going to straighten that up in-house," Campbell said.
The federal government holds approximately $450 million in nearly 500,000 individual trust accounts. Reportedly there are no records for more than $100 million. In tribal trust accounts overall, $2.4 billion remains unreconciled. Norton said she was shocked to hear about the problem and plans to focus on the issue.
"I am committed to working to resolve that issue," she said.
In spite of her position that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be opened up for oil and gas exploration a position opposed by the National Congress of American Indians a few tribes publicly offered support for Norton. Cited at the hearing were letters of support from the Viejas Tribe in Southern California and the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribe in Colorado.