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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published February 22 2013

Spirit Lake sets 'town hall meeting' for Wednesday, but questions linger how public it will be

A meeting of senior Bureau of Indian Affairs officials and leaders of

the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe to assess BIA progress in dealing with

child protection issues on the reservation has been scheduled for

Wednesday, but it is not clear how public that discussion will be.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and the two other members of the state’s

congressional delegation had announced on Feb. 8 that top BIA and

Interior Department officials had agreed to conduct a “town hall

meeting” at Spirit Lake to update members of the tribe on efforts to

better protect the tribe’s children and to give tribal members a

chance to voice concerns.

Hoeven had called the officials to his office to “urge them to

exercise more transparency” in their handling of the issue, spokesman

Don Canton said two weeks ago.

Canton said today that the meeting has been set for 1 p.m. Wednesday

at the Spirit Lake Casino and Resort near Fort Totten, N.D., but that

the BIA told Hoeven’s office “the BIA left it to the Tribal Council to

decide” if it is to be an open meeting.

“That’s not what we wanted,” Canton said.

He said that Hoeven, after learning about the uncertainty concerning

the nature of the meeting, spoke with Kevin Washburn, Interior’s

assistant secretary for Indian affairs, “and pushed to have the

meeting open.”

Washburn, Interior’s oversight official responsible for the BIA, “said

he will work with the tribe to do that, and he’s going to get back to

us.”

Hoeven “has been pushing them for months to be transparent and let the

people of Spirit Lake know what they’re doing,” Canton said. “”They

agreed to hold a public meeting to go through the progress they’re

making and also to gather input and give community members and tribal

officials an opportunity to express their concerns.”

Tribal leaders did not immediately respond to phone or email messages

seeking comment today.

Canton said he was not sure who would participate in the meeting, but

he said it would include senior BIA officials, representatives from

the congressional offices and tribal leaders, and would be led by

Larry Roberts, the deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs at

the Interior Department.

Hoeven, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.,

who joined Hoeven in his Feb. 8 call for a “town hall meeting” at

Spirit Lake, will be in session in Washington next week and unable to

attend, “but we’ll definitely have someone from our office there,”

Canton said.

He said BIA Director Mike Black, who was part of a “strike team” sent

by the bureau to assess the child protection system at Spirit Lake

last fall, will not be there because he is scheduled to testify before

a committee.

The BIA took over child protection services on the reservation on

Oct. 1 and has brought in social workers and other personnel to try to

upgrade the system.