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Tribal leaders protest increase in OST resources
THURSDAY, MAY 22, 2003

Tribal leaders on Wednesday criticized the Bush administration's plans to "grow, not shrink" a Department of Interior office headed by Ross Swimmer, the presidential appointee in charge of overseeing trust reform.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing to address the reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST). The administration is moving forward with changes at the national and reservation level despite objections from tribal leaders and some members of Congress.

A primary complaint was the the beefing up of resources at OST, created by Congress to oversee $3 billion in Indian funds and 54 million acres of land. Swimmer, who was confirmed as special trustee last month, wants to hire as many as 100 new people to watch over the system.

With a nearly 50 percent boost in its budget -- from $152 million to $275 million -- tribal representatives said the office was drawing funds away from critical Indian programs. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), said $71 million was coming out of tribal pockets and $32 million was being taken from school construction.

"You cannot ask for a more symbolic and ironic example of the government's callous indifference to our needs," testified Hall. "We are literally being asked to pay for the government's mistakes with our children's education money."

Keller George, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), said the BIA was "in dire straits" yet OST was receiving more attention. He said "two competing organizations" have emerged as a result of the reorganization and that both will continue to fight for authority, resources and manpower.

"Tribes have made it clear that DOI should not use program dollars to help fund the mistakes of the administration," he said. "Tribes have stressed that the BIA's funding should not be diminished in order to fund the trust effort of the OST."

The Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association (ITMA), a coalition of tribes with significant trust assets, was instrumental in helping pass the American Indian Trust Reform Act of 1994, which created OST. But Richard Sangrey, the chairman of ITMA, said OST was losing its mission as outlined in the act.

"This expansion raises questions about the effectiveness of OST's oversight role and the need for concrete independent review of its performance," he told the committee.

Clifford Lyle-Marshall is chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe of California, one of the founding members of ITMA. He said he "couldn't imagine" that OST, which had just two employees several years ago, would grow to an organization with hundreds of employees and an ever-increasing budget.

"Real trust reform solutions to date have come from Indian Country and have come when tribes take it upon themselves to create their own solutions," he testified.

Swimmer and Aurene Martin, the acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs, promoted the changes that will be affecting both organizations. "We plan to grow, not shrink," read one slide of their PowerPoint presentation, dispelling suggestions that employees will be laid off or transferred.

Swimmer said OST's reach into Indian Country will be as "transparent" as possible. The trust officers who will be placed at BIA agencies in the field will work closely with already existing staff, he said. As many as 80 will be hired plus six new regional trust administrators.

"We're going to approach this as a team," he said. "It will be a team project."

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), chairman of the committee, wasn't worried as much about the OST expansion as much as how it is presented. "You might want to reword that," he said, referring to the "grow, not shrink" slide. "Some of my colleagues might start worrying."

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who voted against Swimmer's confirmation on the Senate floor, said he had "zero confidence" in the entire effort. "Over and over we've had plans with changes and organization charts, words about how they were going to finally get their arms around these problems, and over and over we are left with the same old task," he remarked.

"It reminds me very much of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," he added. "We seem to keep plunging ahead and somehow, nothing fundamental changes."

Tribes have asked the Interior to resume government-to-government talks over the reorganization and the future of trust reform. The department will hold meetings across the country to talk about the changes but they are not considered part of the consultation process, officials said.

Relevant Documents:
Witness List (May 21, 2003)

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

Related Stories:
Swimmer: Don't fear changes at Interior (5/22)
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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