Tribal consultation still troubling at Interior
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After months of talks with tribal leaders, the Department of Interior has arrived at a less than surprising conclusion: consulting with Indian Country consumes a significant amount of time and resources.

In a reform plan filed in federal court last night, the Bush administration says working with "affected stakeholders" is necessary to improve the management of Indian trust assets. Citing a controversial reorganization proposal, the document complains that the process is slow-moving and warns that it can't happen "overnight."

"What appeared to be a straightforward initiative requiring routine communication with Congress and Indian Country resulted in many consultation meetings around the country, the formation of a task force that involved other multiple meetings around the country, consumed thousands of hours of Interior senior management attention, and involved multiple Congressional hearings," the plan states.

And -- to the apparent chagrin of those senior managers -- consultation doesn't always turn out the way they hope. "The reorganization proposal took almost one year and support for the initiative is still mixed," the document laments.

The assessment illustrates a key problem the Interior has faced no matter who is in charge: how to make decisions in the best interests of hundreds of tribes and more than one million American Indians and Alaska Natives. An executive order signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 provides some guidance on government-to-government consultation.

But coming after a particularly rocky year in which tribes and the government were often at odds, the issue has taken on greater significance. A lack of agreement between the camps prevented either side from implementing legislative reforms.

And with the recent departure of Neal McCaleb as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribes say they have lost their voice at the Interior. "If Neal was still the assistant secretary, I would have a lot of confidence," said Jim Gray, Chief of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma. "But the fact that he's out the door, I really don't know."

Last month, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles said the department was interested in creating a permanent consultation vehicle. He said it would deal with trust and a myriad of other issues facing Indian Country.

"We have a difficult mission," he told tribes who gathered in Washington, D.C. "It is not impossible. We will accomplish it with your help."

Some tribal leaders are complaining the department has been all talk and no action. Most are supporting the continued work of the task force mentioned in the reform plan but National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) President Tex Hall, a co-chair of the panel, said Griles doesn't support it.

"Neal McCaleb did," he noted, "but he's not there anymore."

What Griles and other Bush officials are pushing is an advisory board of tribal leaders that they can turn to when necessary. In their view, it would be a much smaller than the task force, which had 24 members, 12 alternates plus a host of technical and other experts.

The idea was tossed around last month but it took a backseat to the reorganization. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington, supported it but the tribes as a whole asked the department to provide more details.

And there was concern that the board would become an easy way for the Interior to get out of consulting with more than 500 tribes. Or worse, that the department would stack the deck with "yes men."

"Clearly, that is a deception that is intolerable," said McCaleb in response.

With or without the Interior, the tribes plan to meet later this week in an attempt to keep the task force alive. In addition to considering the reform plans submitted yesterday, they are working to oppose the nomination of Ross Swimmer, a former assistant secretary who is the chief architect of the reform plan, as the Special Trustee of American Indians.

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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