FROM THE ARCHIVE

Bush officials seek guidance on trust fund

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THURSDAY, JUNE 27, 2002

A senior government official, who swore in court declarations that he is in charge of Indian trust, has refused to answer questions about the Department of Interior's obligations to tribes and individual Indians.

At a Congressional hearing yesterday, Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles said he couldn't explain the standards the department must meet when carrying out its treaty, law and other trust duties. The government manages $3.1 billion in assets and 54 million acres of land for Indian Country.

"That is the fundamental question that you are asking," he told Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Griles, a former Reagan administration official, was reluctant to respond because he said the Bush administration was looking elsewhere for assistance. The Supreme Court, which accepted two Indian trust cases this term, will help define the department's "evolving" responsibilities, he testified.

"As a non-lawyer I tell you that we are looking to those decisions to give us some further guidance," he said.

The testimony marks the second this this month that Griles has publicly failed to state the nature and extent of the Indian trust. When pressed during a radio appearance on Native America Calling on June 14, he insisted Secretary Gale Norton understood her duties yet didn't explain any of them.

The stance has befuddled many in Indian Country, given that tribal leaders are working with the department to develop solutions to historical mismanagement of funds. A key question of that effort, and one that remains unanswered -- at least in the eyes of the Bush administration -- is just how far the government must go to protect and preserve the Indian estate.

"It's the highest fiduciary responsibility," insisted Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, at the hearing.

Hall urged the committee not to let the Supreme Court, known for its anti-sovereignty rulings in recent years, settle the issue for the department. He called on Congress to intervene before a decision is reached on the cases.

"Every tribe in the country will be affected by this," he testified. "This is a real critical juncture."

In the fall, the Supreme Court will hold a hearing to address two cases the Bush administration appealed. Both involve tribes who seek monetary damages for the government's breach of trust.

In one dispute, the government refuses to spend $14 million to repair crumbling school and other buildings located on an historic fort on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona, where large fires have consumed thousands of acres of land. A federal appeals court ruled that the Interior breached its trust by allowing the site to go to waste in violation of a common law standard.

In the other case, the stakes are considerably higher at $600 million but also involve trust standards. By "suppressing and concealing" information from the Navajo Nation, the department violated its duties of loyalty, candor and care, a federal appeals court ruled.

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