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Politics
Tribes say BIA failures threaten self-governance


The Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday heard conflicting testimony from tribal and federal officials about the successes and failures of self-governance.

Tribal leaders and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials hailed self-governance, and self-determination, as a landmark policy. They said it puts more control into the hands of tribes as they decide their own futures.

But tribal leaders said the program is threatened by inadequate funding and bureaucratic holdups. They told the committee that the BIA fails to fulfill the contracts and compacts it signs with tribes and often delivers the money late.

"Unfortunately, self-governance programs have strayed from their original intent to strengthen Indian self-determination and self-sufficiency," testified Delia Carlyle, the chairwoman of the Ak-Chin Indian Community in Arizona.

Carlyle cited a $200,000 promise made by the BIA to help the tribe build a road on the reservation. That was back in 2004, she said, but money never came so the tribe had to dip into its own budget.

"Finally, we have recently been informed by [BIA] that the funding should be available soon but the amount is less than originally promised," she said.

Floyd Jourdain Jr., the chairman of the Red Lake Nation of Minnesota, said his tribe has been denied millions of dollars for over a decade due to infighting within the BIA. He said officials have failed to pay annual cost of living increases for employees under self-governance agreements.

As a result, he said tribes nationwide have been forced to absorb over $500 million in unfunded pay costs. "Currently, there is little financial incentive to encourage tribes newly contemplating self-governance, or even for existing self-governance tribes to maintain their status," he told the committee.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, agreed with the tribal assessments. He said the failure to fully fund self-governance has led to fewer tribes joining the program and even to some tribes dropping out.

"It seems to fly in the face of everything that tribes seek and what we, as a nation, want tribes to do," he said.

But George Skibine, the acting deputy assistant secretary of policy and economic development at the BIA, denied knowledge of a reduction in self-governance. He said he was "not aware" of any slow down in the program.

"It's true the number of tribes seeking self-governace compacts has gone progressively down," he said.

After some repeated questions, another acting BIA official acknowledged that the BIA fails to fully fund the compacts and contracts for the agreed-upon amount and often delivers money for welfare, social services and reservation roads late. McCain appeared visibly upset by the answers.

Tribes won a major legal victory in March 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that federal agencies must fully fund the self-determination and self-governance agreements. Government attorneys had argued that tribal contracts were different from contracts for other services.

Despite the win, tribes still aren't receiving the money they are due because of language in the Interior Department's appropriation act. The acting BIA official said it would be up to Congress to change the situation.

Tribes have repeatedly asked Congress to fix the problem. This year, they are seeking a "bootstrap" amendment that would address certain issues while a more comprehensive solution can be developed.

Senate Hearing Links:
Testimony | Webcast

Supreme Court Decision Cherokee Nation v. Leavitt:
Sylalbus | Opinion [Breyer] | Concurrence [Scalia]

Relevant Links:
Contract Support Cost Litigation - http://www.cscclass.net
NCAI Contract Support - http://www.ncai.org/Contract_Support.36.0.html
Indian Health Service, Phoenix Area - http://www.ihs.gov/FacilitiesServices/AreaOffices/Phoenix