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BIA superintendent departs Spirit Lake

GRAND FORKS -- Rod Cavanaugh, superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs agency at Fort Totten and a key figure in the continuing child protection issue at the Spirit Lake Nation, has taken early retirement, officials confirmed Wednesday.

"Yesterday (Tuesday) was his last day," said Monte LeBeau, who was deputy superintendent under Cavanaugh and has been named acting superintendent.

Cavanaugh, reached Wednesday at his Sheyenne residence, cited "personal reasons" for his early retirement but declined to discuss those reasons further, as did LeBeau.

BIA officials at the regional office in Aberdeen, S.D., and in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Cavanaugh's departure, nor did Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton Sr.

While Cavanaugh would not immediately explain his decision to retire early, it comes at a time when Yankton faces a petition drive and possible recall election seeking Yankton's ouster.

Cavanaugh, too, has been the target of sharp criticism by some in the tribe.

Federal representative

The BIA superintendent is the federal government's primary on-site representative to an Indian tribe, in this case the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe. The BIA is part of the Department of the Interior.

At Spirit Lake, the BIA shares responsibility for law enforcement with the FBI. It also is charged with protecting trust assets by effectively managing the tribe's natural resources, strengthening tribal government, enhancing economic development on the reservation and preserving tribal sovereignty.

The BIA also has reclaimed responsibility for child protective services at Spirit Lake, taking over from Tribal Social Services at the request of the Tribal Council. That came after critics on and off the reservation raised alarms early last year over what they said was a disturbing level of child abuse, neglect and sex abuse there and the inability or unwillingness of tribal, BIA and other officials to deal with the problems.

BIA takes over

Yankton and the Tribal Council initially responded to allegations of grave deficiencies in child protection by hiring a new social services director, ramping up training and authorizing the hiring of more licensed social workers and other child welfare professionals. Gaining tribal authority over its own social services apparatus more than a decade ago was an important step in Spirit Lake's asserting its sovereignty.

But those actions by tribal leaders didn't satisfy critics or forestall intervention by then-Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sen. John Hoeven R-N.D.

At Conrad's urging, the BIA sent a "strike team" including BIA Director Michael Black to the reservation in August. In September, Hoeven went to Spirit Lake himself and warned tribal leaders that progress on the child protection issue needed to be significant, immediate and transparent or the tribe could lose authority over child protection.

Within days, citing a lack of federal funding to adequately address the situation, the council asked the BIA to assume control, which happened Oct. 1.

Since then, the BIA has rotated social workers and other professionals from Indian agencies around the country into Spirit Lake on temporary assignments. The bureau also has begun hiring more permanent personnel.

Again, critics have not been satisfied, and some have alleged -- at meetings, in statements to the media and in Internet postings -- that Cavanaugh and others in positions of authority at Spirit Lake should be investigated for child endangerment for not responding to specific cases of alleged abuse or other crimes.

The Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe has about 6,700 members, of whom about 4,500 reside on or near the Spirit Lake Nation. The reservation covers 383 square miles, or 245,120 acres, about a fourth of which is held in trust by the tribe or individual members.