FROM THE ARCHIVE

DOI working to finish trust reform plans

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THURSDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2002

With a court-imposed deadline fast approaching, Bush administration officials this week shared some aspects of the trust reform plans they intend to submit to a federal judge.

By January 6, 2003, the Department of Interior must specify how it will meet its trust obligations to more than 300,000 American Indians. Part of that includes providing an historical accounting of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust.

"We are trying to accomplish what the court has told us to do," said Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles on Monday.

But there's more to the "multi-disciplinary" effort, as Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason put it. Besides a reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST), which tribal leaders are mobilizing against, the plans include a major rewrite of the departmental manual and a full-scale overhaul of how services are carried out at the reservation level.

"We're starting from ground zero," said acting Special Trustee Donna Erwin.

A new manual is required primarily because of the reorganization. The changes have to reflect new lines of authority at the central office in Washington, D.C., and at more than 80 regional and agency offices nationwide.

The department also has to redo employee job descriptions due to a division of trust and non-trust services in the field. Tied to these personnel changes are the standards by which the department has to manage Indian trust assets.

At a two-day meeting earlier this week, tribal leaders raised red flags about all aspects of the initiative. Citing a bureaucratic reshuffling at the central office, their first complaint was almost always that the restructuring was "top heavy."

"When do we get some money to do things at the agency level?" asked Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington.

Department officials tried to address these concerns by discussing the addition of new "trust officers" at the local level. Erwin said these employees, who will report to the OST, have to ensure that the BIA makes decisions in the best interests of Indian beneficiaries. She compared the setup to a commercial trust operation at a bank where a single person handles beneficiary inquiries and requests.

Tribal leaders weren't satisfied with what they said were conflicting explanations of the duties and responsibilities of a trust officer. Raising real-life examples they encounter on a daily basis, they wanted to know how the trust officers will interact with the non-trust staff and how disputes will be resolved.

"It sounds like the department is still fleshing [it] out themselves," said Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe of California. She urged the department to share its rewrite of the manual and job descriptions as soon as possible.

"I'm not sure everything will be done by the 6th," Cason warned, referring to the details of the effort.

Tribal leaders were concerned about what isn't included in the upcoming plans. Government officials rejected legislative proposals to create an independent oversight commission and ensure a right to sue for breach of trust standards. Legislation to create an undersecretary for Indian affairs and dismantle the OST will be delayed as well.

The department's attempt to redo Title 25 of the U.S. Code, which addresses Indian affairs, won't be included either, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb said. "There was so much misunderstanding on that," he said, referring to tribal opposition.

McCaleb also tried to respond to fears that the department wasn't being forthcoming with tribes. "Is there a secret agenda, another plan here some place?" he said. "There's not."

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

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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