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Inouye criticizes attempts to change trust relationship
Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Tribes should be wary of proposals that aim to redefine the federal government's trust responsibilities, a leading Indian Country advocate said last week.

In a speech to the National Congress of American Indians, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) warned of a "very fancy deal" being advanced by the Bush administration. "When you hear it for the first time you're gonna say, 'My that's great,'" he said.

Inouye, who is stepping down as vice-chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee later this year, was referring to efforts to develop individual agreements for every tribe. He said it was natural for every sovereign tribe to think of its relationship with the federal government as unique.

"You're proud of your sovereignty," he told tribal leaders. "Why not have the U.S. government have 556 separate agreements?"

But he said the the proposal would create inequities in Indian Country. Tribes with great resources would hire lobbyists and lawyers to create the best deal for them, he said, leaving behind others that are not so fortunate.

"But they are your brothers and sisters, and they have no resources to hire these expensive lawyers to negotiate for them," Inouye said.

The World War II combat veteran and third senior-most member in the Senate also warned that the government would engage in a divide-and-conquer strategy. He said officials would "pick the weakest tribe, run all over them and make a deal with them. And that will be the standard for the rest of Indian Country."

"Now if they dealt with the most powerful and the wealthiest Indian nation and came up with one agreement that's good, then they can make that the standard for everyone else," he continued. "But you know very well it's not going to happen that way. Your people have dealt with the government of the U.S. long enough."

"Watch out for that one. It sounds good but it's got a lot of danger in that," he concluded.

The proposal has come up as Congress debates how to fix the trust system but also for the federal recognition of various tribes and Native Hawaiians. In testimony to Congress, government officials, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, have said a so-called "trust instrument" would clarify the federal government's responsibilities to a particular tribe, as well as address other issues including jurisdiction, taxation and land use.

The idea has its roots in something tribal leaders advanced during talks with federal officials in 2002. At the time, tribes sought a "restatement" of the trust responsibility in order to clarify questions that arose in two U.S. Supreme Court cases.

But the tribal proposal differed in a significant ways from what is now being advanced by the administration. Tribes based their idea on the common law of trust that has been affirmed in various court decisions, including one of the Supreme Court cases at issue. Tribes also envisioned a single standard.

In contrast, government officials say they will only look to the common law if nothing else exists. A trust instrument for each tribe, if successful, would end up supplanting the common law.

The restatement proposal was the breaking point in talks between tribes and the government. Administration officials, particularly those at the Department of Justice, rejected it because tribes sought to make all the trust duties legally enforceable.

During the Clinton administration, the Department of Interior developed a set of trust principles based on the common law. But none are encoded in law.

The extent of the government's trust duties will heat up again this year as the Bush administration turns to Congress for help in resolving the Cobell lawsuit over Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts. In budget documents and in public statements, Interior officials say Congress will have to fashion a solution because a federal judge has ordered an accounting of IIM assets that they claim will cost upwards of $12 billionn.

Over the objections of the Cobell plaintiffs, tribes and a number of lawmakers, Republicans inserted a provision to delay the accounting. The "time out" will expire by the end of this year.

The plaintiffs and Interior officials are currently in talks about potential mediation of the long-running case.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

Related Stories:
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Tribes and Bush administration still apart on trust (11/20)
GOP votes in House beat challenges to trust fund rider (10/31)
Court opens window for Navajo Nation trust suit (10/27)
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Cobell sees positive in Supreme Court rulings (03/17)
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Supreme Court upholds common law trust claim (3/5)
High court ruling makes 'passive' trustee of U.S. (3/5)
A mixed bag for Indian trust (3/5)
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