FROM THE ARCHIVE

Bush administration to strip BIA of trust duties

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FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2001

Stripping the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its core responsibilities to Indian Country, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on Thursday announced she was undertaking a major reorganization of her department to change the way it serves 561 tribes and more than one million American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Providing few details beyond an organizational chart, Norton said she was creating an entirely new agency to manage $3.1 billion in oil, gas, timber and other assets on 54 million acres of tribal and individual Indian-owned land. Called the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management, the agency would be overseen by its own Assistant Secretary, who would report directly to Norton and take over many of the duties now being handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians.

"The Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management is needed to ensure that we move forward in the management of Indian trust reform," Norton said in a statement yesterday. "This administration is committed to taking action now that will chart a new course for positive, productive trust reform that will work to benefit American Indian tribes."

Despite the Bush administration's insistence that the overhaul will improve its relationship with tribes, the proposal comes in response to an entirely different matter. Faced with a showdown in federal court over the government's handling of individual Indian -- and not tribal -- assets, Norton made her move under the cover of darkness late Wednesday night, outlining the scheme in a series of documents submitted to a judge who is on the verge of holding her in contempt of court.

In the filing, Norton's lawyers asserted they have already started the reorganization process, including consultation with tribes and Congress. And in response to critical questions U.S. District Judge Lamberth posed during an October 30 hearing, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, who was sworn in as the Interior's second in command in July, declared in a testimonial that he is in charge of trust reform.

But to a number of tribal leaders and lawmakers with direct oversight of Indian affairs, the Interior has sent out conflicting, confusing and intentionally sketchy messages about its efforts. Although Norton told Lamberth she believes consultation has begun, the Interior yesterday could not name a single tribal leader or Indian organization who has been contacted, only saying that meetings are being planned.

"The key word here is consulting," said spokesperson John Wright. "You'll have to stay tuned."

When pressed on the issue, the department pointed to a tribal conference Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb attended on Wednesday in Washington state. He began "sharing" the reorganization plans with tribal leaders there, officials said.

But according to Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Kallam Tribe of Washington and an attendee of the self-governance gathering, no such effort was made. He blasted Norton and the department for being "disingenuous" in their court documents and said he and other tribal leaders are interested in talking to Lamberth to set the record straight.

"So far, the leadership has absolutely no respect for the government-to-government relationship," he said. "It is just a disastrous and bad political move. It's absolutely appalling."

Members of Congress echoed the concerns yesterday as well. "It appears there hasn't been any consultation with tribes," said an aide for a key Indian Country lawmaker. And like tribal leaders, some lawmakers indicated they weren't made fully aware of the proposal until yesterday, calling into doubt claims asserted to the court the night prior.

The relationship between tribes and Congress will prove to be an important one as the plan unfolds. Officials of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest and oldest tribal government organization in the country, said they would oppose the proposal and immediately call on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Committee on Resources -- legislative panels with jurisdiction over Indian affairs -- to hold hearings.

"Though the Secretary has espoused the Cs of communication, coordination, and consultation, her Department and its leadership have repudiated the tenets it has claimed to embrace in the proposal of this reorganization," said NCAI in a statement.

Beyond the documents sent to the court and to the press, the Interior has given tribes, Native Americans and even its own employees and regional officials little details of the steps being taken to implement the proposal that will directly impact their lives. According to EDS Corporation, a consulting firm Norton has paid nearly $3 million to assess trust management, the Interior needs a year to consult with tribes, lay out a structure for the agency and assign a transition team.

In the interim, three reform projects, including a $40 million computer system that has been uncovered as a sham will be overseen by a new office that reports directly to Norton. For these and other efforts, the Interior will spend $228.6 million in fiscal year 2002, which began October 1.

Related Documents:
Graphic: New Indian Agency | PDF: Notice of Reorganization | PDF: Griles Declaration | PDF: McCaleb Memo | PDF: Norton Memo | Text: EDS Report | Text: EDS Letter to Griles

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Trust Management Improvement Project - http://www.doi.gov/bia/trust/tmip.htm
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

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Norton hires own defense lawyer (11/9)
Norton told to appoint trust fund receiver (11/7)
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Judge ready to hold Norton in contempt (10/31)
Interior promises trust fund defense (10/31)
Judge: Norton's actions 'contemptuous' (10/30)
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