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Lawmakers push for reform of Indian trust
MONDAY, JULY 28, 2003

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced legislation on Friday that includes a number of trust reform proposals embraced by tribal leaders before negotiations with the Bush administration broke down.

Standards, greater tribal involvement in trust management and elevation of Indian affairs within the Department of Interior are some of the major components of S.1459, the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act Amendments Act of 2003. The package is sponsored by Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the Senate, and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) in the House.

"This legislation is a step in the right direction," said Johnson in a statement. "The federal government has work to do to live up to its treaty and trust obligations to Native Americans."

The bill is a follow-up to one that was first introduced last summer. At the time, tribes and federal officials were wary of it, citing their ongoing work on the trust reform task force.

After talks between the two parties ended, tribes took a bigger role in lobbying Congress for changes they consider essential. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association (ITMA) were the key players in development of the new package.

One of the major features is Congressional affirmation of standards by which trust funds and assets are managed, a provision in response to the Bush administration's stance in litigation that it has a limited set of obligations to Indian beneficiaries. The bill codifies all of the common law trust principles -- such as the duty of loyalty and the duty to maximize trust assets -- and adds Indian specific ones such as promotion of tribal self-determination and protection of treaty rights.

But in a more significant move, the bill counteracts the ongoing reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the expansion of the Office of Special Trustee (OST). Citing substantive and procedural problems with the initiatives, tribal leaders have spoken out against them.

By abolishing OST and elevating the assistant secretary for Indian affairs to a deputy secretary position, the bill responds to tribal complaints about the impact of trust reform on Indian programs. The deputy secretary would have line authority over trust matters and BIA programs -- like education, law enforcement and economic development -- instead of segregating them to competing agencies. OST would be replaced by a new Office of Trust Reform Implementation and Oversight.

Competition between OST and BIA has fueled much of the debate in Indian Country over the past year. Under the reorganization, OST emerged with the lion's share of new funds and resources, to the dismay of tribal leaders.

Another area of concern for tribes is their relationship with Interior. Since the task forced ended last September, the Bush administration has not committed to new talks, instead choosing to implement the reorganization without further tribal input.

The bill would not restart the task force, which had been one suggestion offered by tribal leaders. Instead, it creates an eight-member Congressional commission that will examine and report on trust management issues within 32 months of first meeting. At least five members of the panel must be tribally-enrolled and at least one of the five has to be an Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holder.

Other sections of the bill would protect the ongoing Cobell v. Norton lawsuit by preventing; authorize tribes to enter into agreements to manage trust funds and assets without diminishing the federal government's trust responsibilities; and require Interior to develop regulations by consulting Indian Country.

"The bill we are introducing today is not intended to either whitewash or redress past wrongs, and it will not forestall the courts from resolving matters properly before them," said Udall in a floor statement. "Instead, it is intended to take an important first step toward a better future for the Indian tribes and individuals in whose behalf the government is duty-bound to act."

Relevant Documents:
S.1459: Trust Standards | Statement: Sen. Daschle | Statement: Sen. McCain

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

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

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On trust, lawmakers take Bush officials at face value (06/25)
House bill targets Cobell trust fund lawsuit again (06/20)
Tribes focus energies on 'core' trust reform issues (05/30)
Effects of trust budget on Indian programs debated (05/28)
Swimmer: Tex Hall's testimony 'was not true' (5/23)
Tribes oppose OST expansion into Indian County (5/22)
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