Tribal leaders taking trust to new level
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In a determined effort to make their voices heard, scores of tribal leaders are descending upon the nation's capital to focus on trust management and trust reform, an issue which, for many, has become their single biggest concern.

By coincidence and by design, Indian trust will see seemingly unprecedented attention in the next few days. From tribal meetings to Congressional hearings to court testimony, the preservation and protection of $3 billion in tribal and individual assets and 54 million acres of land will be intensely discussed by tribes, lawmakers, government officials and other affected parties.

But what has brought together these groups can't be attributed entirely to long-term interest in the subject. What is most represented by the upcoming events is more than two months worth of tribal opposition to Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's proposed reorganization of trust duties.

The mid-November announcement set off a wave of criticism in Indian Country and put in motion a plan to derail the overhaul. On a number of accounts, the assault has succeeded as the aggressive timetable Norton initially designed has been pushed back.

Tribal leaders, however, know their fight is not yet over. Challenged to come up with alternatives to the creation of the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM), a nationwide task force -- with Norton in tow -- will be digging in this weekend to, as Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb put it, put their hands into the "gear box."

The closed-door retreat, which starts Friday and concludes Monday, is just one of the few trust activities occurring in the Beltway. Before and after, the following will take place:

• Jan. 31: An all-day technical workgroup meeting at a downtown Washington, D.C. law firm to examine trust reform reports and discuss legislation and litigation options.
• Jan 31: A status hearing on computer security and the resumption of contempt trial testimony in federal court.
• Feb. 1: Another consultation meeting, the seventh so far, on BITAM to hear tribal views about the plan.
• Feb. 1: A task force meeting following the consultation to prepare for the retreat.
• Feb. 4: A "strategic discussion session" held by the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association to discuss reorganization and other trust issues.
• Feb. 6: House Resources Committee hearing on trust with preparation by tribal leaders the day before.

And as if these events weren't enough, President Bush on February 4 will announce his budget for fiscal year 2003. No "good news" has yet been leaked by the administration on Indian Country funding but Norton wrote in status report two weeks ago that she was "highly confident" trust management and reform would see a significant boost.

Whether that will pan out remains to be seen. But as the next week unfolds, every Native American will be paying attention, said Tex Hall, President of the National Congress of American Indians.

"Obviously, this issue goes right to the heart of Indian Country," said Hall. "This affects every Indian person in the country."

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association -

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