FROM THE ARCHIVE

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Show me the money
Or how the trust reform task force got shafted by the Bush administration

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2002

Indian Country, are you ready for round two? The son of BITAM, that disastrous proposal to fix the broken Indian trust, is coming your way around January 6, 2003.

That's the deadline the Bush administration is facing in the latest round of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) class action, the lawsuit the government keeps losing but keeps fighting anyway. On that day, the Department of Interior is supposed to tell a federal judge -- for the hundredth time -- how it will meet its obligations to 500,000 American Indians.

Recognizing this pressure to reform and still reeling from last week's contempt of court ruling, Neal McCaleb yesterday gave tribes a Saddam Husein-like "War on Iraq" ultimatum: Either you're with us or you're against us.

"We want your input and participation on reorganization, trust standards and a strategic plan," he said at a testy meeting on trust reform. "But if we don't have it, we're going to do it anyway because the court told us to do it by January 6."

If McCaleb sounds like he's going into battle, he certainly is. Just like everyone else in top positions at Interior, including big boss Gale Norton, he's deathly afraid of the next ruling by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, the next report by court investigators Joseph Kieffer and Alan Balaran and the next filing by Elouise Cobell, a tough Indian lady who got tired of being jerked around and filed suit six years ago to demand -- of all things -- the United States act like a trustee.

It's certainly refreshing to know these government officials are paying attention. Years of neglect is how Indian Country ended up in this position -- a lack of accounting, unsecured computer systems, incomplete records and no trained trust managers.

"I keep saying 'Show me the money,'" said Alvin Windy Boy, a Chippewa-Cree tribal leader from Montana.

The problem is, Neal McCaleb and the rest of the Bush crew still haven't learned their lesson. Under the guise of "consultation," they continue to hold tribes responsible for the entire mess. After all, who else is to blame for nine months of task force meetings that have resulted in no agreement on legislation, reorganization, budget and fractionation?

"Respectfully, we haven't advanced the agenda in the areas that are clearly critical to the department," McCaleb said.

And under the guises of "responding to the court," they are pressuring tribes to do their own dirty work. Dangling the promise of fiduciary trust standards, the Interior is perilously close to asking tribes to become co-defendants against tribal members and fellow individual Indian beneficiaries.

Some leaders are rightfully wary. "I'm not going to be a part of that," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington. "If you propose something to the court that is not going to be effective and responsive and responsible to the tribes. . . I for one will be very critical of that process."

Of course, this is all self-inflicted. Last fall, Judge Lamberth angrily asked the department "who is in charge" of Indian trust. The answer was BITAM, the details of which the government refused to share until they were delivered to the court in the form of a shoddy organizational chart at 11:30 p.m. on November 14, 2001.

Then, Norton in January announced to the court -- again with no prior consultation -- that the department's guide to trust reform was "obsolete."

She did that even as she chastised tribes for not responding to BITAM with "constructive" criticism. But she never set a schedule to develop an alternative reform plan -- and now that she doesn't have one -- well, that must be Indian Country's fault too.

Tribes who expect they will get something out of the deal will probably be very disappointed come January. "We are clearly in a litigation mode," said McCaleb. "Those issues are going to have to be vetted with the Department of Justice."

This is the same Department of Justice that argues the Navajo Nation isn't owed one dime for being deceived by former Secretary Don Hodel. This is the same Department of Justice that argues the White Mountain Apache Tribe, whose reservation has been devastated by fire, doesn't deserve to have historic school and other building fixed.

This is the same Department of Justice that argued Indian trust began in 1994 and not 1887.

"Hopefully you'll tell Justice that their responsibility is to the Indian beneficiaries," pleaded Alaska Native leader Ed Thomas. "That's where the 'justice' really is."

Today on Indianz.Com:
Sparks fly at trust reform meeting (9/27)

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

Related Stories:
Norton drafts Indian land grab (9/26)
Indian trust 'a national disgrace' (9/25)
Norton's denials ring hollow (9/20)
Rift widens on trust reform negotiations (9/12)
Tribes scrap talks on trust standards (9/11)
Tribal leaders debate trust reform bill (5/23)
McCaleb gets too close to termination (1/29)
Interior moving to close trust fund accounts (1/25)