Interior considering a limited trust fund
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FRIDAY, MARCH 15, 2002

Department of Interior officials on Thursday indicated they would seriously consider getting rid of the individual Indian trust provided Congress could assure protections to thousands of landowners and tribes.

In response to questions posed by lawmakers who expressed skepticism that the broken system could ever be fixed, senior officials said Indian Country probably won't accept an effective termination of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. "I don't personally think that the individual Indian allottees would think that is the right idea," said Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles.

"But that doesn't mean it isn't the right idea," he quickly added.

Ross Swimmer, former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs during the Reagan administration who now leads up a transition team at the department, pointed out the difficulties associated with parceling out the land. Recalling the loss of the tribal estate during the allotment period, he said "millions of acres" were stolen from Indians by "unscrupulous courts" and other charlatans.

"They took advantage," he said.

But Griles and Swimmer told members of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee that certain problems could be avoided if Congress stepped in. If the land remained free of local and state taxation, stayed within reservation boundaries and was kept out of non-Indian hands, they said eliminating the IIM trust might work.

"I think there obviously is some value . . . if there were a way to having less than a full trust duty to those properties," said Swimmer.

Made during an oversight hearing on trust reform, yesterday's remarks were the first concrete admission that the Bush administration would accept some sort of dismantling of the individual system. The issue was raised briefly last month by Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason, who told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee the idea was rejected in favor of reorganization of trust duties.

But sitting before members of a panel who said the Cobell class action was a nuisance, department officials found a more receptive ear. At the same time, Special Trustee Tom Slonaker kept silent. Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb was not in the room at the time, since he was appearing before the Indian panel.

Still, lawmakers said they were concerned about the apparent lack of progress and the failure to resolve a lawsuit that has dragged on for more than five years. "We need to think about a settlement," said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the committee's ranking member.

Dicks also questioned the status of the historical accounting owed to 300,000 account holders and wanted to know how much the effort might cost. "We will have a better understanding of what the cost will be by the June time frame," responded Griles.

Bert T. Edwards, director of the Office of Historical Trust Accounting, said that a project involving 8,000 members of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has been completed. He said the reconciliation is in the process of being certified.

However, he noted that the accounts were derived from a judgment fund, and not the based on leases or oil and gas revenues.

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

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