Tribes seek details on BIA reorganization

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Tribal leaders on Monday expressed uneasiness about the Bush administration's latest proposal to reorganize Indian affairs within the Department of Interior.

At a meeting with senior officials in Washington, D.C., there wasn't the same type of widespread opposition that greeted the department's earlier proposal. Tribal dissatisfaction forced Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to scrap plans for a new agency to manage 56 million acres of trust land and more than $3 billion in Indian assets.

But participants yesterday voiced some doubts about a restructuring of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST), the two entities most responsible for Indian programs, that was announced earlier this month. Although Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb said it was based on months of tribal consultation, some questioned the effort.

"We talked for months and months and we called it consultation," said Michael Jandreau, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. "We've ended the process and said we've consulted. But it's not true."

Several tribal leaders said they were concerned about the lack of information they have received so far. The department has distributed a packet about the proposal but it lacked the details some were looking for.

"Looking at the charts, it's really hard to tell to tell what the heck is going on," said Charles Jackson, and chairman of the Inter-Tribal Trust Funds Monitoring Association (ITMA), which represents more than 50 tribes with significant trust assets.

Department officials acknowledged they didn't have all the details because most of them are still being worked out. "It is not half-baked," said McCaleb, "but it lacks refinement."

The department was insistent on one controversial issue. "This is not clone of BITAM, son of BITAM or any of the other derivations," said Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason.

The day-long session was very informal and tribal leaders were armed with a number of questions. A key complaint centered on the realignment of authority under a "principal" deputy assistant secretary and a division of trust and non-trust services at the reservation level.

Tim Martin, executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) said the proposal created "two levels of bureaucracy." "The packaging brings up false questions," he added. "It sends out two messages."

Funding and staffing were other frequent topics. The fiscal year 2003 budget calls for an increase in $83 million for trust activities and the department, pending Congressional approval, intends to "reprogram" $5 million to carry out the reorganization.

Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington, said the department should not use existing funds. "I still don't see where the money is coming from," he said.

McCaleb added that the department was still working on new hires. The plan calls for at least 12 new trust directors for the BIA regions plus additional trust officers at the reservation level. "We don't have hard numbers," he said.

Gary Cecucci of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), however, said the department will shift 46 employees that were going to be used to staff up a "risk management" program at the OST. This initiative is being scaled back in the coming budgets, he noted.

Yesterday's meeting was attended by most of the original members of the federal-tribal task force on trust reform. Absent, however, were Navajo Nation representatives and some of the tribal leaders from the Rocky Mountain area, where most of the Indian land base is located.

The session continues today and is expected to end before noon.

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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