At Interior Indian affairs in a state of flux
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Before talks over the future of the Indian trust broke down, tribal leaders and the Bush administration agreed on a couple of things. Both involved the elimination of two entities seen as a hindrance to effective delivery of services to Indian Country.

One was the Office of the Special Trustee (OST), created by Congress to fix the broken trust fund. Some tribes resented OST's presence, saying it drew valuable resources away from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). They also weren't all that disappointed when Tom Slonaker and his predecessor Paul Homan, the only two men who have held the OST post, resigned under pressure.

"Many tribes felt he had gone too far," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington, of Slonaker, who left last July.

The rationale for eliminating the other position, the BIA's deputy commissioner, was to streamline the troubled agency. It was also personal: many tribal leaders made no secret of their dislike for Sharon Blackwell and her predecessor Hilda Manuel, the two women who most recently ran the show and were responsible for the day-to-day operation of the BIA.

But in a sign of the state of unrest at the Department of Interior, neither the OST nor the BIA post will be going away any time soon. Tomorrow, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Ross Swimmer, whom President Bush has nominated as special trustee.

And yesterday, Terry Virden, a BIA veteran, was appointed as deputy commissioner. It doesn't exactly bode well to take on a job that stands to be eliminated but Aurene Martin, who is only acting as assistant secretary until the White House names a replacement for the retired Neal McCaleb, glossed over that in a statement.

"I am confident that he will continue to guide the bureau with a steady hand now and into the future," she said of Virden.

Getting rid of the OST will take legislation because it was created by Congress. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) introduced a bill last month to do just that.

Meanwhile, the department is pledging to spend $275 million in fiscal year 2004, an 82 percent increase of $124 million, to beef up the OST's operations. Up to 80 trust officers will be hired to give the OST a greater presence in Indian Country.

The deputy commissioner is another story. The position has already been written out of the Interior's departmental manual, which is currently being reviewed by an employee's union, and the department has been given the green light to convert the position to a BIA "director."

Just when that might happen is an unknown. The 2004 budget seeks $15 million to reorganize and restructure the OST and the BIA.

Swimmer, a former assistant secretary, is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and served as principal chief for his tribe. Virden is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe of Minnesota.

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