Interior still without trust reform plan
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A senior Department of Interior official on Tuesday acknowledged Secretary Gale Norton's proposal to create a new Indian trust agency lacks the details tribal leaders say are necessary for meaningful consultation.

In a crowded hearing room populated with numerous opponents of the stalled overhaul, Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM) is still just a concept. More than three months after it was first unveiled, he agreed the department lacks an implementation plan.

He also said the department has yet to complete and, in some cases, hasn't even started to address problems identified by a federal court, Congress and Indian Country.

But Cason and other department officials present at the hearing -- Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb and Special Trustee Tom Slonaker -- said they stood behind Norton's effort nonetheless. "We considered it merely a step in the right direction," he said.

At the same time, they were quick to point out that BITAM is not the only solution nor is it the only option on the table. Responding to criticism over Norton's testimony before a House committee earlier this month, they insisted the department was committed to working with tribal leaders to develop alternatives.

Norton, however, wasn't there to impress her views on the committee or two panels of tribal leaders who blasted her reorganization and the eight meetings that have been held to discuss the rejected idea. "The substance of BITAM is something we have not seen and we do not know," charged Clifford Lyle Marshall, chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe of California.

Since BITAM lacks the details they seek, they also said the sessions were just one gripe session after another. "We feel like a lot of time has been wasted," said National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall.

"These negotiations are a one-way street," he said.

Playing into the complaints of tribes were attorneys who told the panel the department's alleged and proven trust failures opened the government up to numerous lawsuits. One lawyer, Don Gray, went further and said the department lacked the expertise need to manage the assets of hundreds of tribes and 300,000 American Indians properly -- a view Cason disputed.

But even here, the department displayed conflicting views. Slonaker said he has pulled funding for trust reform projects because of the lack of management skills and project plans.

And although Cason said an internal workgroup considered various concepts before settling on BITAM -- including terminating the trust and parceling 54 million acres of land out to tribes and individuals -- Slonaker said he saw nothing wrong with keeping asset management under the Bureau of Indian Affairs and his office, or even taking it outside the department as some tribes have suggested.

"I support the Secretary's plan in a sense," he later clarified. "It could conceivably be inside the BIA."

The few committee members who listened to every witness -- only chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) stayed the entire hearing while others darted in and out to attend to other obligations -- agreed something needed to be done. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) said he was tired of hearing administration after administration say it can fix the problem if the department just had more funds.

"We could have taken that money out and set it on fire in the middle of the street," he said.

Inouye was less dramatic and tried to play the role of a diplomat and ensure the department and a task force of 36 tribal leaders continue to work together. After Hall insisted Norton apologize or otherwise retract her recent comments, Cason -- at Inouye's request -- said he would tell his boss to write a letter reiterating her commitment.

McCaleb read from an Indian Country Today editorial signed by Norton which he said does just that. He didn't tell the committee the commentary struck out the passages tribal leaders found offensive, however.

Today, McCaleb will address issues he faces at the BIA before the National Congress of American Indians. The organization has been meeting in Washington, D.C., all week.

Related Documents:
Senate hearing testimony (2/27)

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

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