FROM THE ARCHIVE

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The BIA reorganization that wasn't
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2002

First in an occasional series.

Once upon a time, a certain Bush administration (not this one, the father's) decided to reorganize the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

What happened next hardly comes as a surprise: tribal leaders complained they weren't consulted at a meeting in Albuquerque with the Secretary of the Interior. Upwards of 1,000 showed up to berate Manuel Lujan Jr.

"You say you want consultation with the Indian tribes, but I don't think you truly want it," Wayne Ducheneaux, then-President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), told Lujan in September 1990.

Congress soon stepped in and told the Interior not to make any changes without the input of Indian Country. So a task force was whipped up, tribal leaders from the 12 BIA regions were appointed, a series of meetings were held all around the country and "consensus" was eventually reached on a set of recommendations to improve the agency that everyone loves to hate.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. It's oddly like what happened when this Bush administration decided to reorganize.

News reports, government documents and Congressional testimony from the period recall a lot of the similarities. Only the names of the speakers appear to have changed.

"This is truly a first," said Lujan of the task force effort, as reported by The San Francisco Chronicle on December 3, 1993, "the first time that tribal governments and Indian people have had a say in how the BIA can be structured to best meet tribal needs."

Some of the best accounts come from the paper owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Seminole Tribune always took a skeptical and often humorous (Indian humor, that is) view of the BIA, referred to as the "Boss Indians Around" agency.

One December 13, 1991, article is representative: "Look around the conference room. This is an important meeting. It has a long name: Joint Tribal/Bureau of Indian Affairs/Department of the Interior Advisory Task Force on Bureau of Indian Affairs Reorganization. Wheewww!"

"Important people are here, some with pens in their hands, others with concern on their faces. Some are leaned together, whispering in hushed tones. Some look like they're asleep. The top officials of Indian Country are in session."

"Gruff Mescalero Apache leader Wendell Chino fumes and steams. Tall, likeable BIA top dog Dr. Eddie Brown raises an eyebrow of concern. Quiet, staring intently is Seminole chairman James Billie, who writes songs when it gets boring and calculates the politics when it's not. Stately coat-and tied Mississippi chief Phillip Martin smiles knowingly, graciously tolerant of discussions he's heard many times before. Cheyenne-Arapaho's Juanita Learned, Penobscot's James Sappier, Navajo's Daniel Tso, Joseph Goombi of Kiowa - Indian Country top thinkers all."

"But thinking won't unstick the xerox machine, will it?"

So what happened?

The xerox machine, it seems, is still stuck.

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

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