BIA proposes another set of changes
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The Bush administration on Wednesday announced a "major" restructuring of Indian affairs within the Department of Interior, the second time in two years the federal government has tried to address long-standing mismanagement problems.

Only this time around, the changes being made to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST) are even more pervasive than last year's proposal to create a separate agency to manage billions of dollars of Indian funds. Tribal leaders unanimously rejected the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM) and Secretary Gale Norton took it off the table this summer after establishing a joint federal-tribal task force to investigate alternatives.

Although talks broke down after tribes and Bush officials failed to agree on key legislative initiatives, the reform plan contains some organizational elements supported by the members of the task force. "We could not have come this far without the input of tribal leaders," said Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, who is leaving his post at the end of the month, in a statement.

Yesterday afternoon, McCaleb, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason met privately with a small group of tribal leaders to discuss the changes. John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, said his first impression was positive.

"From my perspective, there's a lot of really constructive portions of this plan that we had all worked out in the task force," he said after the meeting.

Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington, also attended the discussion. He said the proposal "was not exactly the same" as what tribal leaders have endorsed because of the legislative impasse.

"We think it was going in a positive direction relative to what we proposed but that there were some areas that we recommend they reconsider," Allen said.

The overhaul mainly affects the BIA, the agency responsible for managing 56 million acres of land on behalf of more than 500 tribes and one million American Indians and Alaska Natives. From the assistant secretary to the reservation level, there are a number of changes in the agency's operating structure.

But while the goal is to improve services to individual Indian and tribal beneficiaries, whose funds in such a disarray that no one can account for them, the reorganization is largely managerial in nature. New bureaucratic positions will be created in Washington, D.C., to handle economic development and information technology.

Allen said tribal leaders are concerned about the placement of self-determination and self-governance initiatives under the economic development deputy. Indian gaming will be realigned under this deputy as well.

At the reservation level, the proposal calls for a split between "Indian" services and "trust" services. The change is less dramatic than the separation that BITAM sought but it still draws a line between fiduciary and non-trust functions, a major complaint tribal leaders had voiced.

According to organization charts released by the BIA, Indian services include roads, housing and construction while trust functions include probate, land title, land consolidation and natural resources.

As for the OST, the eventual goal is to transfer its functions -- and budget -- back to the BIA and reduce its role to one of strictly oversight. But because legislation is needed to amend the 1994 American Indian Trust Reform Act, the law that created the OST, yesterday's proposal marks only the beginning of the future envisioned for the agency.

The department is mailing a packet of information about the proposal to all tribal leaders today, although a select group was given the documents yesterday. It is but a small part of the Interior's attempt to meet a court order to fix the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust.

By January 6, 2003, the Bush administration has to submit a plan to account for the funds of more than 500,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives who are beneficiaries of the trust and describe the standards by which those accounts will be administered. The Interior also must say how it will bring itself into compliance with the fiduciary obligations owed to the beneficiaries.

Although the task force fell apart in late September, the tribal leaders who sat on the panel plan to meet in Washington, D.C., on December 16 with department officials to respond in greater detail to the reorganization proposal. They also hope to get a preview of the IIM plan.

Relevant Documents:
New BIA-OST Organization | New BIA Organization | Old BIA Organization

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

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