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Tribes focus energies on 'core' trust reform issues
FRIDAY, MAY 30, 2003

Meeting without the Bush administration on Thursday, tribal leaders stressed the need to stay united as they move forward with initiatives to reform the broken Indian trust.

Reorganization, litigation and legislation were among the topics discussed at the Washington, D.C., gathering, called by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Tribal leaders said their task force, to operate independently of the Department of Interior, will focus on these and other "core" issues of trust reform.

"That's the beauty of a tribal leader's task force," said NCAI president Tex Hall in an interview after the meeting. "If you work together, you can accomplish those kinds of things."

Throughout the meeting, tribal leaders vented frustration with the Bush administration's reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST). Department officials are making significant changes at the national and reservation level that were characterized as bureaucratic bloat.

"When they came to our ancestors to sign treaties, there was only one Great White Father," said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Daokta.(*) "Now, they are trying to make five or six. We need one place to go."

Another complaint was the shifting of funds to OST, whose budget next year will nearly double from $152 million to $275 million. Attendees said the boost was coming at the expense of other Indian programs and planned meetings with the White House and members of Congress in hopes of limiting the damage.

The task force also discussed working with the plaintiffs in the Cobell trust fund case currently underway in federal court. Although not a party to the case, which concerns individual trust funds, tribes are considering submitting an amicus brief to address, and possibly halt, the reorganization.

Keith Harper, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) attorney on the case, welcomed tribal participation. Presenting an update on the litigation to the task force, he said it was important for Indian Country to stay united.

"We don't support the reorganization because it's a waste of money," Harper said after the meeting. "We do have to stand together."

On legislation, tribes are advancing two trust reform bills. The first would outline trust standards, create a single undersecretary for Indian affairs at the Interior and increase tribal participation in trust management.

Although the Bush administration is opposed to standards, the real meat of the bill, Shenan Atcitty, an attorney working for the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association (ITMA), said it was necessary to keep the ball rolling. The bill, she added, would also resolve some of the tribes' concerns about the reorganization.

The other piece of legislation, being developed by the California Indian Legal Services, addresses Indian land consolidation and ownership. Lisa Oshiro, an attorney, said the bill would correct amendments, passed by Congress in 2000, that have caused fear among landowners.

"The 2000 amendments really terminated the status of a lot of Indians," she said. The new bill creates a uniform probate, or inheritance, code for landowners.

Although tribes have asked to restart government-to-government talks with the Interior, department officials are already implementing the reorganization. Training sessions for BIA and OST employees were being held across town while the tribes were meeting.

Next month, the two agencies will begin what is being called a "massive outreach program" to educate DOI employees and tribes about the reorganization, which is expected to take about a year to complete. A dozen or so meetings are planned throughout the country but officials acknowledge they are not consultation meetings.

*Ed. Note: The statement was made by Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, not James St. Goddard as was previously reported.

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

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

Related Stories:
Cobell welcomes a settlement to trust case (5/30)
Tribes gathering for trust reform discussion (5/29)
NCAI's Hall stands by trust reform testimony (5/28)
Reorganization: Meet the 'new' OST (5/28)
Tribes oppose OST expansion into Indian County (5/22)
Swimmer: Don't fear changes at Interior (5/22)
On trust, Swimmer turns to private sector (5/14)
Reorganization: Meet the 'new' BIA (04/30)
DOI begins second transition period on Indian affairs (04/29)
Bunker metality evident in trust reform fight (04/22)
At Interior, Indian affairs in a state of flux (02/11)
BIA agencies face new trust rating system (02/10)

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