Tribes furious with Interior's reform push
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Already upset with an effort they say reflects little of their input, tribal leaders lashed out at the Bush administration on Thursday for withholding key information about the Department of Interior's pending reorganization.

At a meeting this week in Washington, D.C., department officials said they were waiting for Congressional authorization to "reprogram" $5 million in the upcoming budget. The money would be used to restructure the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST), the two agencies most responsible for management of 56 million acres of Indian land and billions in trust funds.

But Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, his top aide Jim Cason and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb neglected to inform tribal leaders that the House had approved the request on December 10, well in advance of this week's task force session. The Senate agreed on Wednesday, a day after tribes who attended the two-day meeting said they would ask Congress to halt the reprogramming.

When told of the final approval -- and the department's public relations campaign to promote it -- tribal leaders were furious. "I don't know why they are being so damn disingenuous," said Ron Allen, the outspoken chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington. "What benefit does it serve?"

Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota and president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), accused the Bush administration of being actively "deceitful" with the tribes. "I think it shows that the government is not telling us the truth," he said.

"Enemies have better respect for each other than a trustee-beneficiary relationship," he added. "What the hell kind of relationship is that?"

John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, was "sad" after learning that department officials kept the House approval from them until Interior spokesman Dan DuBray issued a press statement. "If they are trying to promote a spirit of open discussion, it makes it difficult to see that," he said. "When we see these press releases, obviously this was a done deal before they even told us about it."

"It really hurts my feelings," he said.

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, acting Special Trustee Donna Erwin and McCaleb, who is retiring this month, held a press call yesterday afternoon with reporters to trumpet the latest development. "We listened to what we learned from Indian Country," said Norton. "The fact that Congress has now allowed us to go forward is an important recognition of that."

"This has been a lot of work," added Erwin, who was chastised by a federal judge this week for not being forthcoming with her schedule. "This has taken a lot of people away from what they have been doing."

Despite the attempt to paint the reorganization as the result of nine months of consultation, the circumstances of its announcement are not sitting well with many. On December 4, Griles, Cason and McCaleb invited six tribal leaders -- including Allen and Berrey -- to a private briefing on the proposal.

Those who weren't invited, even though some were in Washington, D.C., at the time, felt the department was choosing sides. "I was never informed of a secret, select meeting," said one key leader who was excluded.

Similar sentiments were expressed by others this week. "I felt some times that you all had your 'go to guys,'" Rachel Joseph, chairwoman of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of California said on Monday. "If you are looking for people that you assume are going to go along with you, I guess that's fair, politics being politics. But that sends a message about the lack of true government-to-government consultation."

The "back door" approval of the reprogramming letter, which many saw for the first time on Tuesday after Griles sent copies to the task force, only adds fuel to the fire, tribal leaders said yesterday. All agreed that the lack of candor jeopardized future discussions.

"What they've done all month clearly shows that our relationship is severely damaged," said Hall. "and I don't know if it's repairable."

Some tribes with significant trust assets condemned the reorganization before this week's meeting. The Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the country, walked out of talks in September and officials last week said the department was incapable of reform.

The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana passed a resolution against the plan as well. In a letter to Norton, Chairman Arlyn Headdress accused the department of using the tribes as "pawns."

Alvin Windy Boy, chairman of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe of Montana, and Michael Jandreau, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, had harsh words about the proposal at the task force. A representative from the Flathead Nation of Montana said the reorganization didn't reflect what McCaleb characterized as consensus among the tribes. Charles Jackson, chairman of the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association (ITMA), which represents more than 50 tribes with major trust assets, also had concerns.

"Yes, there are a lot of questions that are yet to be resolved in the implementation of the organization," McCaleb admitted yesterday. "We are addressing those as we move decisively and as vigorously as we can."

Although the task force members all agreed to oppose the reprogramming, many tribes have not developed opinions on the reorganization itself due to lack of details from the administration. Twenty tribes from Arizona are meeting today to discuss the issue further.

Secretary Norton Speaks:
MP3: 'We received the House letter on December 10' (December 19, 2002)

Relevant Documents:
House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Letter (December 10, 2002) | Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Letter (December 18, 2002) | Congress Approves Historic Reorganization Plan for Bureau of Indian Affairs and Office of Special Trustee for American Indians (December 19, 2002) | Reprogramming Letter to Congress (December 4, 2002) | National Congress of American Indians Press Release (December 17, 2002)

Reorganization 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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