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Bush reorganization faces more obstacles
FRIDAY, MARCH 14, 2003

Two leading Indian Country advocates made a bipartisan request on Thursday to halt the reorganization of Indian affairs at the Department of Interior.

Criticizing the pending changes as short-sighted and inadequate, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the minority leader, asked Senate appropriators not to approve additional funds for the proposal. In a letter, the lawmakers called for a new round of "genuine" tribal consultation and "extensive" Congressional hearings.

"Mismanagement of Indian trust assets by the federal government is a longstanding problem that spans a number of administrations of both political parties," McCain and Daschle wrote. "However, the complexity and longevity of this fiasco neither mitigates the injustice visited on the 300,000 American Indians whose accounts have been shortchanged nor absolves the federal government of its responsibility to correct the situation in a timely manner."

The letter was delivered to Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate subcommittee that funds the Interior. Last December, the panel approved the use of $15 million to make significant changes at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST). A House subcommittee also gave its nod.

Most tribal leaders oppose the reorganization. "We don't like it," said Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. in an interview. "It's being done unilaterally."

But there has been little they could to do stop it. Announced in early December while Congress was in recess, many felt department officials were trying to rush it through without tribal consent.

"Consultation is a two-way street," said National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) President Tex Hall. "It just can't be on their terms."

With the reorganization funds already approved, the Bush administration is forging ahead, citing a need to be responsive to a federal judge overseeing the debacle. Testifying before a House subcommittee on Wednesday, Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles said the money will be used, in part, to hire dozens of trust officers who will be the "first line of contact for tribal and Indian beneficiaries" throughout the country.

Last year, tribal leaders spent nine months with Bush administration officials in an attempt to resolve more than a century of Indian trust asset mismanagement. The goal was to develop reforms that Indian Country and the federal government could both support. Tribal leaders had rejected an earlier proposal to create an entirely new trust agency.

But talks fell apart in September, a week after Secretary Gale Norton and her former Indian affairs aide Neal McCaleb, now retired, were held in contempt of court for lying about efforts to fix the system.

The Interior has not responded to tribal requests to restart the dialogue. NCAI, which represents more than 200 tribes, wants to hold a trust reform summit next month to bring the department back to the table.

McCain and Daschle said that was only the first step to true reform. The second was to hold hearings before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, the letter stated.

"Going forward, both Congress and tribal leaders need to be given the opportunity to provide input on all important trust reform proposals," Daschle added.

Relevant Documents:
McCain-Daschle Letter to Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee (March 13, 2003) | House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Letter (December 10, 2002) | Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Letter (December 18, 2002) | Reprogramming Letter to Congress (December 4, 2002)

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

Related Stories:
Educators opposing BIA plans (3/11)
Norton says trust forced 'tough choices' in budget (02/12)
New Bush budget aims to improve trust fund (02/04)
McCain asked to halt BIA reorganization (01/16)
McCaleb approved reorganization in Nov. (1/13)
Tribes weigh reform plan response (1/13)
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)
Swimmer picked as Indian trustee (1/6)
Norton won't account for assets (1/6)
McCaleb learned about trust 'on the job' (12/23)
Tribes furious with Interior's reform push (12/20)
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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