Norton proposal seeing dramatic slow down
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More than 30 tribal leaders on Thursday asked Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to delay the creation of a new Indian trust agency, even as her top officials acknowledged the proposal was being slowed down by the Bush administration and Congress.

In a letter signed by attendees of a meeting in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Norton was urged to put off the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM) pending a "full consultation by all affected Indian tribes." The current list of nationwide sessions -- now expanded to include at least four more gatherings in mid- to late-February -- is inadequate, the tribal leaders wrote, and is only just the beginning of the process.

And until Indian Country has enough money, resources and time to develop their own solutions to handling more than $3 billion in tribal and individual trust assets, Norton, who did not attend the session, must "issue an order delaying implementation" of her plan, they said.

"Many of the tribes have provided to you our concerns in writing and many others have spoken eloquently of the need to slow down and think carefully the reorganization process you have announced, pending full tribal consultation," the letter states.

Along with comments provided at yesterday's meeting, during which tribal officials and members complained about not having enough time to provide their views, the tribes' latest salvo represents another step in their assault on Norton's controversial overhaul. Set forth in late November, the ultimate goal is to stop what Rick Deer, a council member from the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, called "a conspiracy against the tribes."

So far, Norton and her top aides have refused to scrap the plan, despite repeated requests. But tribes have been successful at derailing the administration's original -- and aggressive -- implementation schedule, which was designed in response to a class action lawsuit over the trust assets of 300,000 American Indians.

Regarding concerns about $300 million being used to fund BITAM, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb said the transfer has been halted in the Senate until consultation sessions are completed. With additional meetings being planned in Oregon, Montana and Arizona -- which McCaleb said would require extension of the February 15 cut-off date for written comments -- Norton's schedule has been slowed dramatically.

Additionally, the administration has agreed to the creation of a tribal task force, which McCaleb said would be taken seriously by the department. "It absolutely is the only way that we are going to to arrive at an accommodation," he said.

Tribal leaders told McCaleb they hoped the alternatives developed by the task force won't be ignored. "I want it to mean something," said Charles Tillman, chairman of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma.

In spite of the concessions, some tribal leaders said they feared Norton will create BITAM -- with or without their approval. "If you do that," said Deb Louie, a Confederated Colville Tribes of Oregon council member, "I think we're going to sue."

Today on Indianz.Com:
Little hope for trust fund payments (1/4)

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

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