Limit on trust reform talks questioned

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Federal officials are moving to restrict participation at an upcoming meeting on trust reform, prompting complaints that the Bush administration is trying to stifle debate on the proposed reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb last week announced that the joint federal-tribal task force on trust reform would reconvene after nearly three months of inactivity. Talks had broken down in late September because tribes and the Department of Interior failed to agree on key reforms affecting the management of billions of dollars in trust assets.

But with a new round of discussions set to take place over the course of two days next week, McCaleb has quietly said he wants to limit attendance to tribal leaders who sat on the task force, a move that would prevent the rest of Indian Country from attending. It would also stop some of the government's harshest critics -- as well as a court investigator for the Indian trust fund lawsuit -- from observing.

"Of course they want a closed meeting so no one can stand up and refute them," said Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney who would be among those barred from attending.

Since the task force meetings began earlier this year, they have been open to the general public. The only exception is during a tribal caucus, when even federal officials aren't allowed to listen. Members of the press also cannot sit in on tribal deliberations.

McCaleb's move to restrict who can attend has drawn complaints from some tribal leaders. They are holding a conference call this morning to discuss the issue, with some considering a boycott of the meeting.

Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington, said he will discourage a walkout. He said there is too much to discuss, not just about the reorganization but about the future of consultation with the administration.

At the same time, Allen said he doubted McCaleb will hold to his position. "My comment to him was: 'You're going to chair the meeting, you can control who talks.' What's the big deal?"

John Berrey, another task force member, is the chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma. He said he has been encouraged by the attempt to restart discussion.

"A lot of the people I talked to feel like our work is not finished," he said. "We need to find a way to keep going."

The task force consists of 24 tribal representatives, two from each of the 12 BIA regions. It was created to develop alternatives to Secretary Gale Norton's proposal to split the BIA into two agencies, an idea unanimously opposed in Indian Country.

Although the relationship with federal officials eventually soured, the panel suffered from internal strife. Some of the larger tribes, including the Navajo Nation, questioned the role the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) took in the development of the task force. NCAI President Tex Hall stressed unity throughout the process.

But the Navajo Nation ended up dropping out, citing the failure of the task force, as a whole, to stand up to the government on key issues of accountability. "Although this appeared to be a joint effort toward trust reform, it is my understanding that we are making more and more concessions in order to accommodate the desires of our trustee," President Kelsey Begaye said in September. "This is not what we envisioned."

Other prominent trust-related organizations voiced complaints. The Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association (ITMA), which represents more than 50 tribes with significant trust assets, was relegated to a role as observer on the task force.

Individual Indian beneficiaries whose funds are at the center of a class action lawsuit in federal court were also denied a vote. Harper, one of the attorneys representing the account holders, attended some but not all of the meetings. He was blamed by Norton in a recent court report for fracturing the talks.

Also targeted was Joseph S. Kieffer III, a court investigator who attended the meetings on behalf of U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. The Bush administration has used his presence to seek his removal from the case.

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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