Tribes enter 'new phase' in trust reform battle
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Tribal leaders are moving forward with renewed plans to correct more than a century of trust fund mismanagement in the wake of a virtual breakdown in talks with Department of Interior officials.

A schism that emerged in early September broke wide open last week when Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb blamed a lack of progress on the joint federal-tribal trust reform task force. After nine months of meetings, he said there was little agreement between the two camps.

"Respectfully, we haven't advanced the agenda in the areas that are clearly critical to the department," he told tribes at a meeting in the Washington, D.C. area.

McCaleb was responding to a federal judge's ruling holding himself and Secretary Gale Norton for their failure to fix the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust fund. He said the Bush administration would develop with a strategic plan for the accounts of 500,000 American Indians without tribal consent.

Tribal leaders reacted angrily to the hard-line stance and predicted disaster. They reiterated their views yesterday and said they have entered a "new phase" of reform.

"Now is a critical time for Interior to avoid short term thinking, and not to hastily develop a 'reorganization plan' which would cut tribes out of the discussion and is not likely to be responsive to the court order," the tribes said in a statement.

Tribal leaders hope to work with the administration in advance of the plan's anticipated delivery date of January 6, 2003. They expect to discuss IIM standards, management plans, reorganization, fractionation and budget.

But they also plan on going to Congress with their own legislative proposals. The goals are ensuring government accountability, protection of self-determination, new funding, greater tribal involvement and continued consultation.

The tribes face a difficult task with Congress adjourning soon due to the upcoming election cycle. They also will see opposition by the administration on bills to enforce fiduciary management standards and create an independent oversight commission.

Despite the doubts, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) believes the work can be accomplished by the end of the year. Along with Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), he wrote a letter to Norton asking her to endorse trust reform legislation they have introduced or make her own suggestions.

"We have seen no movement from the administration that indicates they are serious about meaningful trust reform," Daschle said.

The task force members are encouraging all tribes to attend an October 23-25 meeting in Billings, Montana, to discuss the recent developments. The 59th annual session of the National Congress of American Indians will be also be a sounding board for reform ideas.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's September 17 court order requires the Interior to develop two key items: a plan to conduct an historical accounting for the IIM and a plan to bring itself into compliance with its obligations owed to the IIM beneficiaries. The latter must describe "in detail" the standards the department will use to administer the IIM accounts.

The IIM accounts, which see an estimated $500 million annually, are separate from tribal trust accounts, which are valued at more than $2 billion. The government has never performed a full, historical accounting on either type of account.

Relevant Documents:
Tribal Leaders Statement on Trust Reform Task Force (10/2)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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