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Interior officials push trust reorganization plan

Indian Country has "nothing to fear" as the Bush administration moves forward with a reorganization plan at the Department of Interior, a top official said on Tuesday.

Special trustee Ross Swimmer said the changes being made at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST) are based on suggestions by tribal leaders. He discounted opposition to the effort and suggested not everyone knows the "facts."

"I'm not sure that there's not support from the tribes," Swimmer said during a conference call yesterday. "I think there remains some questions and perhaps some apprehension because they are still hearing rumors and innuendo and what have you rather than the facts of the reorganization and how it's going to work."

Last December, the department announced plans to revamp how the BIA and OST manage more than $3 billion in Indian funds and 54 million acres of land. The two agencies are seeing changes at the national and local level to focus on what officials call "beneficiary-centric" services for tribes and individual Indians.

Yet few in Indian Country have embraced the reorganization, which came a year after Secretary Gale Norton first proposed to strip the BIA of its trust duties and and hand them to an entirely separate agency that Swimmer was supposed to run. After months of complaints, Norton finally pulled BITAM off the table.

"Tribes still have the bad taste of BITAM in their mouths," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the largest inter-tribal organization. "[Interior officials] don't have the support of the tribes."

Along with Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe of California, Hall was the co-chair of a joint tribal-federal task force on trust reform. After months of talks, the panel was disbanded just as the new reorganization was announced.

Tribal leaders have asked the Interior not to implement the changes without further consultation. But Aurene Martin, the acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs, yesterday said there were no plans to do that.

Instead, she said, the department will undertake a "massive outreach program" to educate DOI employees, many of whom have felt left out, and tribes. Implementation teams will travel out to different parts of the country in June.

"Reorganization isn't just going to happen overnight," she said. "It's going to happen over probably the next year or so."

Martin did not label the effort a government-to-goverment consultation process, which is what tribes have demanded. Hall predicted "more resistance" unless the administration engages tribes.

Issues surrounding the reorganization and consultation will be discussed at Senate hearing today. The Indian Affairs Committee, acting on requests by tribes and some members of Congress, will hear from Swimmer, Martin, Hall and other tribal representatives.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former chairman of the committee, and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the minority leader, have urged the administration to slow down. "[T]o allow the Administration to unilaterally impose significant trust reforms without adequate input from tribal leaders or congressional oversight will only serve to exacerbate an already intractable and longstanding problem," they wrote in March 13 letter.

Today's hearing starts at 10 a.m. A live video feed can be accessed at http://indian.senate.gov

Relevant Documents:
New Assistant Secretary Organization | New BIA Organization | Old BIA

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

Related Stories:
On trust, Swimmer turns to private sector (5/14)
Bush reform plans debated in trust fund trial (05/02)
Reorganization: Meet the 'new' BIA (04/30)
DOI begins second transition period on Indian affairs (04/29)
Court investigator slams Interior's trust fund report (04/22)
Bunker metality evident in trust reform fight (04/22)
Ross Swimmer confirmed as special trustee (4/11)
Bush reorganization faces more obstacles (03/14)
Senate panel approves Ross Swimmer nomination (03/06)
Senate committee to take up Ross Swimmer again (3/4)
Daschle statement in opposition to Swimmer (3/4)
Senate committee to take up Ross Swimmer again (3/4)
Swimmer confirmation delayed (2/27)
Campbell asked to delay vote on Ross Swimmer (2/26)
Senate panel eager to confirm Swimmer as trustee (02/13)
Swimmer can't recall Navajo involvement (02/13)
Swimmer spoof rings true for some (2/12)
Swimmer slow to recall Reagan era 'fallout' (01/17)
Swimmer was promised BITAM job (1/16)
Tribes moving to oppose Swimmer nomination (01/06)
Unfit officials stick it to Indians again (12/09)
A super assistant secretary, in all but name (05/03)
Swimmer legacy still haunts BIA (02/12)
Reagan's Indian chief is back (11/20)

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