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Tribes debate response to trust reform plans

A group of tribal leaders met in Washington, D.C., last week to consider their response to a set of court-ordered proposals aimed at fixing the broken Indian trust.

Although not parties to the ongoing lawsuit, tribes are increasingly interested in the case. The six-year dispute, initiated by Elouise Cobell, a banker who is the former treasurer for the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, represents more than 500,000 individual tribal members but reform efforts have greater impacts throughout the Department of Interior.

"Tribes," said John Dossett, a lawyer for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), "have in some ways been on the sidelines. For the first time, we are going to take a direct hand in this litigation."

The form of the tribal participation will be through a friend-of-the-court brief. NCAI is working with the law firm of Hobbs, Strauss, Dean & Walker, which has represented several trust cases, to draft and submit the response by the end of the month.

"An amicus brief is going to focus on the tribal point of view," said Charles Hobbs, an attorney whose work on the Mitchell Supreme Court cases paved the way for many Indian claims.

The tribes have identified several issues they will raise to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, the judge overseeing the case. They say any changes to the trust must include clear standards, respect tribal self-determination, keep funding resources intact and require consultation.

Sifting through hundreds of pages of documents the Bush administration and the Indian plaintiffs submitted on January 6, Michael Willis, one of the attorneys working on the brief, said they were "markedly different." He characterized the government's proposal as "plan to make a plan" because it lacked hard deadlines and didn't include the details tribes have sought.

"Judge, get off our backs," is the message the government is sending, Willis said.

With regard to trust standards, Hobbs said the plaintiffs' plan was "worth getting on board." "I think it does the trick with regard to what the trust standards are," he told the tribes.

But not all were convinced. George Waters, a representative of the Crow Tribe of Montana, criticized the addition of a team of experienced trust managers to oversee the system. "This is plan that reorganizes the [Bureau of Indian Affairs]," he said.

Jim Gray, chief of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, backed the plaintiffs' inclusion of tribal standards for the management of trust assets. He also responded to suggestions that tribal interests outweigh those of the individual Indians. "To say that they don't have a right to be at the table is wrong," he said of the individual account holders.

Most of the discussion occurred during a closed door session on Friday morning. Tribes grappled with a response that falls within the guidelines of a NCAI resolution that was passed last year, and when it should be submitted, according to participants in the talks.

Attorneys for the Indian plaintiffs said they welcome the submission of any amicus briefs. Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) acknowledged that their plan includes major changes but said it also respects tribal rights.

The government and the plaintiffs have until January 31 to respond to the plans, which Lamberth will use to enter what is known as a structural injunction. The order will require the Interior to meet its duties to the individual account holders.

By January 31, both sides must also raise issues about the scope of an accounting for the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. Lamberth expects to start a trial on moving forward the accounting on May 1.

Court-Ordered Reform Plans:
DOI: Fiduciary Obligations | DOI: Historical Accounting
Plaintiffs: Remedial Plan | Plaintiffs: Historical Accounting

Relevant Documents:
DOI Interagency procedures handbook | Other Memoranda

Reorganization Documents:
New OST-BIA | New BIA | Old BIA

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
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/

Related Stories:
Additional DOI documents filed on Jan. 6 (1/10)
Treasury won't file trust reform plan (1/9)
Standards guide reform effort (1/8)
What happened to all the land? (1/8)
Congressman accuses Norton of 'stealth' moves (1/8)
Sioux chairman calls BIA talks a 'sham' (1/8)
Cobell trust reform plans filed (1/7)
Norton to fight IIM accounting (1/7)
DOI complains about consultation (1/7)
Court official demands documents (1/7)
Griles: No evidence of trust fund loss (1/7)
Swimmer picked as Indian trustee (1/6)
Norton won't account for assets (1/6)
McCaleb learned about trust 'on the job' (12/23)
Lamberth slams claimed accounting (12/23)
Edwards: Slonaker changed mind on accounts (12/23)
McCaleb challenges trust accounting claims (12/19)
Deadline approaches on plans (12/19)
Tribes opposing BIA proposal (12/18)
'This is not son of BITAM' (12/17)
Tribes debate future of talks (12/17)

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