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The Rise of Tribes and the Fall of Federal Indian Law
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Tribes and Bush administration still apart on trust
Thursday, November 20, 2003

Two years ago this month, Bush administration officials came to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) to talk about the trust fund debacle. Tribes responded with fury, anger and opposition.

At the 60th annual NCAI convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this week, there were plenty of similar sentiments. Delegates said they still feel they are being excluded from efforts to fix the broken system. They still oppose the reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other proposals they say were developed without their input.

But the overall feeling that emerged at a session yesterday seemed to be one of exhaustion. Several who attended said they had all but given up on making their voices heard.

"Obviously tribes are frustrated as they feel their suggestions regarding trust reform have fallen on deaf ears," said Geri Small, the president of Montana's Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Small was a member of the tribal-federal task force that sought to develop solutions but fell apart amid several disagreements in the fall of 2002.

Currently, the BIA and the Office of Special Trustee (OST) are holding meetings around the country to discuss the reorganization, a major overhaul of trust practices known as the "to-be" project and a proposed consolidation of Indian land appraisals.

Some who attended those meetings said they have not been productive. Not enough information was provided to enable tribes to understand what is happening or to establish meaningful dialogue about the changes.

"It was a waste of time," said Fred Auck, chairman of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho.

Gary Morishima, a representative of the Inter-Tribal Timber Council who was a technical advisor to the defunct task force, said BIA and OST did not come prepared to the meetings. It is unrealistic to expect tribes to be able to provide responses about the "to-be" project when that happens, he said.

Special trustee Ross Swimmer, a Bush political appointee, attended the session to give his views on trust reform. He sought to dispel what he said was misinformation about the federal budget, which tribes contend has been gutted to pay for the government's mistakes, and his own personal agenda.

"There are things that are hard to kill in Indian Country and that's rumor," he said.

The Bush administration isn't out to dismantle the tribal-federal relationship, he said. Tribes complain that OST, which he heads, is taking away program dollars from the BIA.

"There is no feeling that we are diminishing the trust responsibility," he said.

The proposal to consolidate Indian appraisals hasn't convinced tribes otherwise. Their worries center on Indian preference, tribal priority allocation (TPA) dollars and compacting and contracting.

NCAI President Tex Hall challenged Swimmer to adopt a preference policy at OST. He said the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 applies to all Indian programs, not just the BIA.

"We support Indian preference. We don't have a legal responsibility as in the BIA, which has been been interpreted in some instances to be almost an 'Indian-only' policy," he responded. "I will not say that we [at OST] will go that far."

When pressed to explain why BIA's policy is different, he responded: "[acting assistant secretary] Aurene [Martin] doesn't have a choice."

Swimmer confirmed that Indian preference will not apply if the appraisal consolidation goes through as planned. He said that about 40 employees are affected. The Indian employees' union estimates that up to 67 positions will lose preference.

Currently, appraisals are handled out of OST but the money still comes out of the BIA budget, specifically, the TPA line item of $11 million. Lena Belcourt, the legislative analyst for the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Montana, said the appraisal consolidation hurts self-determination and self-governance.

"Bottom line -- show me the money," noted Chippewa Cree Chairman Alvin Windy Boy, expressing his once-common refrain during the task force process.

Tim Martin, the executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), urged attendees of the session not to give up. Provide written comments to the BIA and OST, attend their meetings and try to work out a plan, he said.

But not everyone was convinced that would work. "It's just like 100 years ago," said Mel Tonasket, a council member for the Colville Tribes of Washington. "Send an agent to the Indians. Agent Ross Swimmer."

The comment period for the appraisal consolidation will end December 1. Swimmer said he hopes to make a final decision by early 2004.

The "to-be" project will be releasing a CD-ROM early next month. It is a lengthy document that will take some time to go through, said Daryll LaCounte, the director of BIA's trust re-engineering. "We need your input, we absolutely have to have it," he said.

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:
Editorial: Indian Country's Ugly Baby (11/05)
Indian employees to lose preference under Bush plan (11/04)
Self-governance tribes fear impact of reorganization (10/09)
Consolidation plan advances at Interior (9/16)

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