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Self-governance tribes fear impact of reorganization
Thursday, October 9, 2003

The Bush administration's reorganization efforts threaten to set back years of progress on self-governance, tribal leaders said on Wednesday.

Before a hearing of the House Resources Committee, leaders of tribes who have successfully taken over programs formerly managed by the federal government expressed some of their fears. They said changes at the Department of Interior (DOI) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will limit their ability to assert greater control over their affairs.

"We know our people best," testified Melanie Benjamin, executive director for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe from Minnesota. "We know what their needs are."

In their remarks, Benjamin and other witnesses on the panel targeted the reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the expansion of the Office of Special Trustee (OST) and the consolidation at the Indian Health Service (IHS). Bush administration officials say their efforts at these agencies will improve services to Native Americans.

Benjamin disputed the assertion and said the changes will only benefit bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. She characterized the IHS consolidation as the downsizing of an agency whose funds have not grown with inflation.

And any boosts in federal funding will not trickle down to Indian Country, she argued. While the BIA's budget has more than doubled in the past decade or so, her tribe's self-governance budget has increased only 35 percent the during the same period, she said.

Clifford Lyle Marshall, chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe of California, said the initiatives will add levels of confusion. "Self-governance is an experiment in dialogue, an experiment in negotiation," he told the committee. "We cut the middleman out, the bureaucracy out."

But with the reorganization, "DOI is planning to take us all the way back to a system that existed before self-governance," he asserted. "They're proposing to design the program for us, they're going to set the standards, the processes and procedures and they're going to fund the program by taking money off the top of tribal program funding."

Jacob Moore, a special assistant for congressional and legislative affairs for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona, said the administration's trust reform proposals fail to take into account self-governance. He said tribes have "met and often times exceeded the level of trust accountability practiced" by Interior.

"We need to ensure that the embodiment of self-governance is not diminished," he testified.

Officials with the the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana warned that the Interior's reorganization will make it harder for everyone to contract and compact programs. "The beauty of self-governance is that it gives us the flexibility to design programs that meet the needs of individual tribes," he said.

Anna Whiting Sorrell, the tribe's director for support services, said BIA's trust functions are slowly being stripped away and handed to OST. "As they separate out from one program to another, it's going to force us to renegotiate [agreements] under stricter guidelines. It really allows the federal government to centralize those services, not the tribes," she said.

The tribal representatives called on Congress to give clear direction to DOI and HHS. They said the agencies should ensure that the self-governance is not negatively impacted by the ongoing changes.

They also backed a special demonstration program authorized in the Senate's version of the appropriations bill that funds both DOI and HHS. Known as Section 134, the tribes said it would shield self-governance from trust reform's side effects.

The section applies to tribes with valid self-governance compacts and to the California Tribal Trust Reform Consortium, to which the Hoopa Valley Tribe and others in the state belong. It states that Interior "shall not impose its trust management infrastructure upon or alter the existing trust resource management systems" the tribes have in place.

The House version of the budget bill does not include the measure. Tribal leaders said they were hopeful an agreement would be worked out in the conference committee that is finalizing the bill.

The full text of Section 134 reads:
Notwithstanding any implementation of the Department of the Interior's trust reorganization plan within fiscal years 2003 or 2004, funds appropriated for fiscal year 2004 shall be available to the tribes within the California Tribal Trust Reform Consortium and to the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation and the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boys Reservation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Regional offices that serve them, on the same basis as funds were distributed in fiscal year 2003. The Demonstration Project shall operate separate and apart from the Department of the Interior's trust reform reorganization, and the Department shall not impose its trust management infrastructure upon or alter the existing trust resource management systems of the California Trust Reform Consortium and any other participating tribe having a self-governance compact and operating in accordance with the Tribal Self-Governance Program set forth in 25 U.S.C. Sections 458aa-458hh

DOI Budget Bills:
H.R.2691 | H.Rept.108-195 | S.1391 | S.Rept.108-89

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov

Related Stories:
Lamberth lays out future of Indian trust reform (09/26)
Senate approves $20 billion DOI budget bill (9/24)
Consolidation plan advances at Interior (9/16)
Swimmer weighs consolidation of appraisals (8/15)
Congress hacks Bush's accounting funds (7/16)
Trust fund provision stripped from House bill (7/15)
Swimmer partly right on trust fund rider (7/14)
NCAI's Hall stands by trust reform testimony (5/28)
Swimmer: Don't fear changes at Interior (5/22)
On trust, Swimmer turns to private sector (5/14)
Reorganization: Meet the 'new' BIA (04/30)
DOI begins second transition period on Indian affairs (04/29)

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