Norton retreats on BITAM proposal
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Three months after she first announced a proposal to create a new Indian trust agency, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton is slowly withdrawing her controversial overhaul, department officials said on Monday.

In response to overwhelming objection in Indian Country and criticism over her recent testimony before a House committee, Norton is retreating from the creation of the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM), officials said. "She has reconsidered BITAM and is willing to work with tribal leaders," said spokesperson Frank Quimby.

Norton also no longer believes the new entity is "superior" to alternatives developed by tribes and Indian organizations, Quimby and other department officials said. Her remarks to the House Resources Committee earlier this month on the subject angered tribal leaders, who felt duped after spending an entire weekend working -- at her request -- with senior officials to develop options to BITAM.

She now seeks to "clarify" those comments, said Quimby. "There was no conflict intended and she was definitely committed to working with tribal leaders," he said.

But, to the dismay of tribal leaders, Norton has not taken her proposal off the table officially. At a session of the National Congress of American Indians yesterday in Washington, D.C., they reiterated their complete opposition to BITAM, which they criticized as lacking any concrete measures to improve the management of $3.1 billion in tribal and individually-owned trusts.

"Their proposal is in concept only," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington and a member of a task force on trust reform. "They have no more details than we do."

Tribal leaders also rejected Norton's attempt to make up for her testimony, which they continue to view as damaging. "The Secretary needs to apologize," said NCAI President Tex Hall in an interview.

"It's a conflicting message that we're getting," he added. "We can't have conflicting messages coming from the Secretary."

Norton's slow backtrack has emerged after her contentious House appearance. In subsequent court testimony, court filings and a public statement in Indian Country Today, she has softened the often defiant tone she displayed at the February 6 hearing that was attended by a large number of tribal representatives.

Quimby acknowledged her latest steps are "definitely" an attempt to address the concerns of tribes. "People wondered if there was some kind of mixed message being sent," he said. "It should be one unified message."

Quimby said a senior management team composed of Norton, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb and Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason is trying to come up with a "new approach" that would incorporate solutions proposed by Indian Country. Elements of BITAM might be included but Norton "wants to clarify any impressions that she's pushing BITAM above and beyond the others," he said.

Tribal leaders yesterday agreed that moving forward with a well-developed plan was essential. "We need to do it quicker than later," said Ed Thomas, Chairman of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska.

Hall said the task force will be meeting in March to consolidate the nearly dozen proposals submitted by tribes. He highlighted alternatives developed by the United South and Eastern Tribes, the Hoopa Valley Tribe of California, the Inter-Tribal Timber Council as addressing the need to reform and create independent oversight of Indian trust.

At today's Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing, those proposals, along with views of the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association, will be presented to members. The hearing starts at 10 a.m. and a live audio and video feed are available.

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

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