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Senate panel hears conflicting views of reorganization
Thursday, March 11, 2004

Bush administration officials defended their shakeup of two agencies serving Indian Country on Wednesday amid tribal criticism of the "one size fits all" initiative.

At a crowded hearing, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee took testimony from Department of Interior officials and tribal leaders. Both sides presented vastly divergent views of the ongoing reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the expansion of the Office of Special Trustee.

Special Trustee Ross Swimmer did most of the talking for the administration, arguing that much of the opposition was grounded in "fear of change." But assistant secretary Dave Anderson, who has been on the job for about a month, said he agreed with the restructuring even though he is still learning about the changes.

"At what point do we stop the merry-go-round and say, 'Time out, things have got to change,'" Anderson told the committee.

Five tribal leaders representing a cross-section of Indian Country blasted the "top-heavy" reorganization as ill-conceived. They said it would create new layers of bureaucracy without adding critical resources at the reservation level to handle leases, appraisals and probates of Indian lands.

"This work cannot be done by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., or in Albuquerque," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest and oldest inter-tribal organization.

Hall cited his tribe in North Dakota as an example of the needs at the local level. The Fort Berthold Reservation, he said, has just one range technician for 1 million acres of grazing land, no appraisers, a three-year backlog of probates, a six-month wait for land title approvals and 100 pending oil and gas leases.

The largest tribe in the country also testified against the reorganization. Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley Jr. centered on the loss of BIA resources to OST, which has grown from a handful of employees a decade ago to nearly 700.

"The Navajo Nation believes that one objective that must be met is Congress' commitment to appropriate any proposed reorganization with new dollars and not Indian program dollars," Shirley said. In fiscal year 2005, the BIA is being cut by 2.3 percent while OST is growing by 54 percent.

Ed Thomas, president of the Tlingit-Haida Tribe of Alaska, told the committee there has been no effort to fund the BIA at the levels it needs. He compared the scandal to the savings and loan bailout of the 1980s, for which Congress appropriated tens of billions of dollars on reform.

"The trust management system in the BIA is broken and has been for a long time," he said. The reorganization, which he called a mere shuffling of boxes, would have negative effects, he added. "Deadwood always floats to the top," he said. "We've seen that happen more than once."

Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and president of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association, said the initiative fails to take into account the needs of tribes and Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders in his region. "We know that one size doesn't fit all," he testified.

Taken together, the Great Plains region and the Rocky Mountain region have the most IIM accounts and the largest land base in the country. Tribes in both regions have developed alternate plans to address local concerns, including additional staffing. There is only one appraiser to cover millions of acres in the Great Plains, Frazier noted.

"Our plan was developed in Indian County by Indians, for Indians," he said.

Clifford Lyle Marshall, chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe of California, spoke about a pilot project created by Congress through an appropriations act last year. A select group of tribes were to continue managing trust assets and other programs without the reorganization affecting their relationship with their BIA agencies.

But Marshall said OST was hindering his tribe's right to self-governance by holding the tribe's programs standards the government has never met. "We know that what we do, and the decisions that we make, work," he testified.

Only Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), chairman of the committee, attended the entire hearing. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) had to leave at the beginning to complete other Senate business.

But the tribes received backing from Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who testified that Congress has failed to do its part in ensuring trust reform. "It's time for Congress to admit that this 'hands off' approach is not working and accept our share of the responsibility for finding a timely and fair solution," he said.

During the hearing and in a conference call with members of the media yesterday afternoon, Swimmer rejected criticism of the reorganization. "The tribes that have been the most vocal ... also have breach of trust lawsuits," he said at the hearing.

Of the five tribal leaders who testified, only two -- Tex Hall of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and Joe Shirley Jr. of the Navajo Nation, whose suit began nearly 10 years ago -- have lawsuits pending. Also, of the more than 550 tribes nationwide, there are currently less than two dozen trust claims in the courts.

In the conference call, Swimmer said he has never seen the regional and agency plans that tribes have created. "[As] special trustee, I'm not being consulted," he said after laughing. "I've never seen the plan. I don't know what they are talking about."

Swimmer said the BIA is conducting assessments of each agency to determine the needs. He also OST is adding 85 to 90 new employees and all but six would be located at the reservation level.

"We hope through this kind of review that we'll establish a sort of baseline of where these agencies are," he said. When asked whether tribes and IIM account holders have input into the review process, he said, "They create the need. ... We listened to them."

Tribes have called for a moratorium on implementation of the reorganization, which Swimmer said was "basically done." "We are staffing now and we will complete the staffing down for the agency level positions this calendar year," he said.

While OST staff is being beefed up, the BIA probably won't be getting any new hires, Swimmer added. People are being promoted within to the deputy superintendent for trust position, a new feature of the reorganization. Typically, the person being promoted is the agency's realty specialist.

Relevant Documents:
Testimony for Senate Hearing (March 10, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

Related Stories:
Senate panel to hold hearing on BIA reorganization (2/26)
Anderson praises Cobell suit in NCAI speech (2/25)
Fate of Indian preference in hands of Swimmer (02/04)
NCAI president uses speech to lobby for funding (01/22)
A wish list, and resolutions, for Dave Anderson (12/11)
Anderson finally receives nod to take over BIA (12/10)
Swimmer says reorganization is about 'simplicity' (12/05)
DOI holding 'to-be' meetings on trust reform (12/03)
Editorial: Reform DOI, not the trust responsibility (11/26)
Tribes still frustrated on trust reform (11/20)
Bush officials blasted by tribal leaders (11/19)

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