Highlights: Trust fund hearing
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The House Resources Committee hearing on trust fund management and reform was certainly an affair to remember. And perhaps a preview of more to come, as the subject will be the focus of a Senate Indian Affairs Committee discussion later this month.

Whether or not Secretary of Interior Gale Norton will bring her "General Custer Killed" oversized newspaper to that event is an open question. But if you want to know more about what went down, here are some highlights of some of the testimony that took place during the first half of a more than five hour hearing on Wednesday.

Part II, featuring a lengthy question and answer session with Norton, will be posted next week, to be followed by the testimony from tribal leaders.

Opening Remarks
Chairman Jim Hansen (R-Utah): "This committee views the government's trust relationship with Native Americans to be a non-partisan issue that demands our sincere attention. There is no room for political posturing."

"We respect the need for tribal consultation and input from other outside experts."

Ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.): "It is unfortunate, but true, that through both Democrat and Republican administrations, the Interior Department has acted like the Enron of federal agencies when it comes to managing Indian trust assets."

"One of the reasons I requested this hearing was to examine the Secretary's rather sudden an unexpected proposal at the time to form a new agency within the Interior Department . . This plan was developed with no input from Indian tribes or account holders. It was a huge mistake. . . For make no mistake, there is pain and misery in Indian Country because of the failure in federal trust responsibility."

[No other committee members read opening statements but submitted them for the record.]

Norton's Testimony
"Last year in my first hearing in front of Congress, I spoke briefly about the matter of Indian trust reform and . . emphasized that I have grave concerns about our existing management systems. My experience of the past year has certainly reinforced my feelings from last February."

[Norton also told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee at the time that she was signing off on a statistical sampling project of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. She later scrapped the plan after a court monitor raised concerns about it and criticized the decision in a subsequent report.]

. . .

"Congress has reviewed the issue of Indian trust asset management many times but . . . true reform has never been achieved. . . Time after time, decade after decade, we have failed to actually achieve reform."

. . .

"Trust responsibilities are spread throughout the department. Thus, trust leadership is diffuse. The Bureau of Indian Affairs itself has a long history of decentralized management and as a result, it does not have clear and unified policies and procedures regarding trust management."

. . .

"Planning systems related to trust have been inadequate. A new strategic plan needs to be developed."

[Norton later announced that Ross Swimmer was developing the plan.]

. . .

"The current structure of the department is not suitable for carrying out the expectations of the tribes, the Congress, or the courts. To meet this level of expectation will require more funding and resources than have been historically provided to the department."

. . .

"[TAAMS] has been inadequate. The department had hoped to go a long way to solving its problems and yet this system has failed to achieve meet many of its objectives."

. . .

"Our information technology security measures associated with Indian trust data lack integrity and have not been adequate to protect trust data."

. . .

"The full reconciliation of all accounts will ultimately require considerably more money. Conducting a full audit, a transaction by transaction, will be more difficult and very expensive, probably hundreds of millions of dollars. Without this accounting, however, the plaintiffs in the [Cobell] litigation will continue to assert, as they have in the press, they are owed tens of billions of dollars."

. . .

"To my great surprise, the tribes are very strongly attached to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They may view it as dysfunctional and as a mismanaged organization but as the entity to which they've invested considerable time and attention, it is their consistent point of contact with the federal bureaucracy."

. . .

"[Under a court order] we first sought to operate the IT systems required to make payments to individual Indians. Our initial request was to operate a key Indian system. . . It is our intent to make lease payments to individual Indians as rapidly as we are permitted to do so."

. . .

"As a rough estimate, about 90 percent of the Department of the Interior is currently off-line. . . We will continue to work with the court to expedite the resumption of the many public service programs that depend on being connected to the Internet."

. . .

Conclusion: "Indian trust asset management is a very high priority for the department.
We need to establish an organizational structure to facilitate trust reform and trust asset management.
We need to establish an ongoing effective consultation mechanism with the tribes.
The department must improve computer support and security to ensure the integrity of Indian trust data.
We are being challenged by litigation which requires significant changes in how the trust is managed.
It appears that substantial resources will be required to meet the growing expectations of tribes, the courts and Congress.
The tribes, Interior and Congress have to reconcile the competing principles associated with trust responsibility and self-determination.
It is important that at the end of this process, the tribes have greater ability to govern themselves and determine their own future."

Get Written Hearing Testimony:
House Committee on Resources (2/6)

Today on Indianz.Com:
Audit finds more security holes (2/8)

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

Related Stories:
Dog and pony show moves to Congress (2/7)
Norton dodges questions on Internet shutdown (2/7)
Norton goes before House panel (2/7)
Editorial: Take trust from Interior (2/7)