FROM THE ARCHIVE

Tribes administration hit 'impasse' on trust

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WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2002

Tribes have ended talks with the Bush administration over a critical aspect of trust reform, citing resistance of government officials worried about litigation stemming from a century of Indian money mismanagement.

Eight months of intense negotiations broke down this week when tribal leaders voted unanimously to pursue support in Congress. The key issue was legislation designed to implement, for the first time, standards governing the management of billions of dollars in trust funds.

"Trust standards are important to implementing trust reform," said Jacqueline L. Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

Tribes developed a draft bill to ensure the Department of Interior carries out its trust responsibilities. But the Bush administration failed to provide "acceptable" input, Johnson said, due to ongoing court disputes.

"We recognize that DOI will not be able -- because of litigation -- to address this issue," she said.

Tribes plan to continue discussions on other areas of trust reform, and additional meetings of a tribal-federal task force have been scheduled. Departmental reorganization, budget and Indian land issues are still on the table.

But tribal leaders and government officials admitted they hit an "impasse" over trust standards. "It's disappointing," said Interior spokesperson Dan DuBray yesterday, "but we go back and tackle the areas in which we can reach consensus."

Tensions boiled over during a conference call last Friday in which tribal leaders complained about the Bush administration's obstinance. Notes taken by NCAI point to the disagreement among the two groups.

"I'm frustrated that Interior seems to just object and never give us anything to work with," said Rachel Joseph, chairwoman of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of California and a member of the trust reform task force.

Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, according to the notes, blamed the lack of agreement on the Department of Justice. "I don't know that we're ever going to get something that will be ok with Justice," he said.

"We talked long and hard with DOJ, but at the end of the day we were not able to speak with one federal voice," noted Phil Hogen, an Interior solicitor whom President Bush has nominated to oversee Indian gaming.

On Monday, tribal leaders agreed to end talks on the standards. During another occasionally terse conference call yesterday afternoon, they informed Bush officials of the decision.

With the Supreme Court set to hear two trust cases that deal directly with trust standards, tribes are anxious to ensure their legal rights are protected. But key members of Congress have warned that passing legislation by the end of the year would be difficult.

The Bush administration has been hit with nearly 20 lawsuits from tribes alleging mismanagement of their funds. The landmark Cobell class action affecting 500,000 American Indians is also making its way through the court system.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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