FROM THE ARCHIVE

Tribes at 'crossroads' with federal government

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TUESDAY, DECEMBER 17, 2002

With the death knoll sounding for the joint federal-tribal task force on trust reform, tribes and the Department of Interior are looking for ways to achieve what almost seems like an unattainable goal: meaningful consultation.

The task force met for 10 months all over the country and ultimately failed to come to an agreement on key reforms in the management of Indian trust assets. There were complaints about how it was set up, some tribal leaders abandoned the process and there is still grumbling that the government didn't really listen

Those problems notwithstanding, some tribal leaders yesterday said they wanted the work to continue. "I think it's extremely important for there to be a consultation mechanism," said Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe of California and a co-chair of the panel.

Just how that happens is up for debate. Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, who retires at the end of the month, said the department is intent on creating a "forum" for ongoing talks with tribes, not just on trust reform, but on a wide range of topics.

His remarks led to a wide-ranging discussion among tribal leaders and government officials who attended the last official task force meeting. "We are at a crossroads in the Indian-federal relationship," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of the American Indians (NCAI).

"If we fail to get it right on consultation, people will wonder if we will ever get it right," he said.

In 1994, the Clinton administration memorialized a government-wide policy on consultation with tribes. The executive order, which President Bush has embraced, is the guiding policy on making decisions that impact Indian Country.

Implementation, however, varies. Tribal leaders are notoriously critical of some government agencies, like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for their historic mistreatment of Indian issues.

Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles said the Interior wanted to learn from those experiences. "Some of us still have a great deal to learn from you." he told the tribal leaders.

Some tribal leaders said the department could address its own mistakes. "I have felt that there's been certain divisiveness," Rachel Joseph, chairwoman of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of California, told the Interior officials. "I felt some times that you all had your 'go to guys.'"

"If you are looking for people that you assume are going to go along with you, I guess that's fair, politics being politics," she added. "But that sends a message about the lack of true government-to-government consultation."

During the meeting, McCaleb tried hard not to dictate how future talks might happen. But he and the tribes shared similar views about the need for a widely-representative advisory council to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or perhaps the entire department, that would consist of elected tribal leaders with term appointments.

Keller George, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), questioned whether all the discussion with McCaleb was worth it. He was worried about a replacement who may hold different views on the subject.

"Right now we can talk, we can get along, and we can do all of the things we are doing today," he said. "But when that individual sits in your place -- unknown. That's really what scares me more than anything."

McCaleb said he wasn't privy to the search for a new assistant secretary but said there was a "short list" of candidates. "I am advised that they are trying to to move pretty quickly," he told the tribes.

McCaleb also said he didn't know who would be named the acting head of the BIA until a new person is found. Although Bush could conceivable nominate someone shortly, the vetting and confirmation process could take months.

Talks about a consultation vehicle will continue today but no real decisions are being made. McCaleb urged tribes to develop a strong proposal to submit to Secretary of Interior Gale Norton in order to move the idea ahead in the coming months.

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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