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Published February 22, 2013, 11:38 AM

Spirit Lake 'Town Hall' Set for Wednesday, but Unclear How Public

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.

By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald

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.

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