DOI begins second transition period on Indian affairs
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The Bush administration is moving forward with an ambitious plan to overhaul Indian affairs at the Department of Interior despite complaints from tribes and members of Congress.

Last week, Secretary Gale Norton and Special Trustee Ross Swimmer signed into effect changes at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST), the two agencies most responsible for carrying out the federal government's trust obligations to tribal governments and individual Indians. Officials believe the reorganization will streamline the way services are delivered to Indian Country.

A departmental manual being released to employees describes the new organization. At the BIA, the biggest change is a consolidation at the Washington, D.C., central office, while OST will see the addition of dozens of "trust officers" at the reservation level.

Aurene Martin, the acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said the powerful deputy commissioner will be renamed as director. "The deputy commissioner had too many direct reports," she said on the radio show Native America Calling last Friday. "It seemed like there could be a more effective way of structuring his authority over staff and issues."

The BIA director position, now held by Terry Virden, a career bureaucrat, will still oversee the 12 BIA regions. But he will no longer have direct authority over federal recognition, Indian gaming, economic development, self-governance, information technology and planning and budget. These areas are either being elevated or shuffled to other parts of the central office bureaucracy.

At the OST, a "transition" effort is already underway. In a memo to employees, principal deputy Donna Erwin announced a slate of "acting" senior management positions who will oversee the changes.

"During the transition process, each supervisor will meet individually with each of their staff to explain the cross walk and where the person's postings will be in the new organization," Erwin wrote on April 23. "There will be many opportunities within the new organization."

The trust officers are a significant change not just for OST but for Indian Country. With status equal to a BIA superintendent, they will be the first point of contact for Indian beneficiaries seeking information about their trust assets.

"We want to get people out on the ground, right where the beneficiaries are," Erwin said in an earlier interview.

"With these new positions, a person can go and say 'What is my information? Where are my accounts? Where is my land? How much do I own? Who leases my land?'" said Martin on the radio show. "That should be open and transparent to every person who holds a land interest or account."

Although the reorganization won't happen overnight and officials have described an implementation lasting several months, many tribes are not supportive. The National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization, is predicting conflicts and confusion with the imposition of OST at the reservation level.

Members of the House and Senate have also voiced complaints. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is set to hold a hearing on the changes on May 21 on trust management issues. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Daschle (D-S.D.), the minority leader, have asked Congress not to allocate funds to carry out the reorganization.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), a member of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian issues, was more harsh in his criticism. In an April 17 letter to Norton, he said the Interior has failed to consult with tribal leaders. "Your administration of trust reform has been plagued by failure after failure," he wrote.

In fiscal year 2004, the Bush administration has requested nearly half a billion dollars to carry out its trust initiatives. The increase came at the expense of other Indian programs, which are seeing no major improvements.

Relevant Documents:
Donna Erwin Memo to Staff (March 23, 2003)

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