American Indian Trust Reform: The Challenge to Consensus


Improving the federal government's management of its Indian trust responsibilities is the most significant challenge facing the Department of the Interior. Although these problems have gained a disturbing aura of insolubility during the past few decades, the program can and must be improved. The significance, complexity, and urgency of the effort cannot be overstated.

The solution requires courage and a willingness to embrace change. American Indian leaders have strongly disagreed with my initial proposal to restructure Interior's trust assets management organization. I respect tribal leaders' objections and welcome the alternative proposals I have received from Indian country.

These tribal leaders clearly recognize the critical need for significant improvement in trust operations. Together, we'd like to reconcile our different points of view as a prelude to defining a reorganization proposal that will allow for improved management and accountability.

Our trust reform management team received valuable insights during a series of regional consultation meetings with Indian leaders over the past several months. We appreciated the frank exchange of views, received many valuable suggestions and remain open to all ideas. No options or approaches have been foreclosed.

We continue to meet and work with Indian leaders, who have formed a Tribal Leaders Task Force to coordinate their efforts. The group is composed of two elected tribal leaders from each region, with a third tribal leader acting as an alternate. I have provided financial resources to support the task force and the consultation efforts.

Together, we are earnestly endeavoring to achieve progress on trust reform. The task force and my team are currently evaluating several recommendations that were presented by American Indian tribes, individuals, and organizations during the consultation process.

My initial reaction is that the various proposals all recognize a need for significant improvement in trust management and contain many insightful recommendations that can potentially be merged to achieve a broad consensus on a fresh approach.

I am optimistic that together we can agree on a reorganization plan that will enable us to address the major long-standing issues in trust reform. These issues are not new, either to American Indian communities or Interior officials. As trustee, the department is responsible for about 11 million acres of land owned by individual Indians and nearly 45 million acres owned by tribes. Interior is also responsible for managing the income from more than 100,000 active leases for approximately 350,000 individual Indian owners and 315 tribal owners. The department distributes leasing and sales revenues of $300 million per year to more than 225,000 Individual Indian Money accounts and about $800 million a year to 1,400 tribal accounts.

However, the department is not well structured to focus on its trust duties. The work is shared by many bureaus, making trust leadership diffuse. The Bureau of Indian Affairs itself has a long history of localized management and as a result, does not have clear and unified policies and procedures for trust management.

The current planning systems related to trust are inadequate. The High-Level implementation Plan is outdated and has failed to accomplish significant progress in improving delivery of trust management to the tribes and individual account holders.

The Trust Asset and Accounting Management System software (TAAMS), which Interior had hoped would go a long way to solving trust problems, has yet to achieve many of its objectives. In addition, Interior must improve the integrity and security of information technology security measures associated with Indian trust data.

Finally, the challenges related to fragmented interests in allotted land continue. Over time, ownership has "fractionated" into interests divided among heirs of the original allottees. In some cases, ownership interests have subdivided exponentially, with the passing of each generation, to the point where we have single pieces of property with ownership interests that are less than .000002 of the whole.

There are about 1.4 million fractional interests of two percent or less involving 58,000 tracts of individually owned trust and restricted lands. Currently, Interior is bound by its trust obligations to account for each owner's interest, regardless of size. Though these accounts today might generate less than one cent in revenue each year, each is being managed, without the assessment of any management fees, with the same diligence that applies to all accounts.

These are some of the major parameters of the challenge facing us. Litigation has resulted in Court rulings that further spur the need for significant changes in how the trust is managed. Among other things, Interior and Treasury are required to provide plaintiffs an accurate accounting of money in their individual Indian money trust without regard to when the funds were deposited.

To better coordinate all activities relating to historical accounting, we established the Office of Historical Trust Accounting. Interior will deliver a Comprehensive Plan to the Court and to the Congress to outline the full range of historical accounting activities and to provide a foundation for Congress to evaluate our funding requests.

While we work with tribal leaders to evaluate the options for addressing this reform obligation, all of us need to maintain our focus on the overriding test for whatever plan we work out ? is it the most effective method for delivering trust services and other functions to American Indians and tribal governments.

Tribal leaders and I are moving forward to improve our trust programs. I encourage tribal leaders to continue to provide constructive suggestions and proposals. We appreciate their insights in defining practical solutions. Our work together will help our efforts to improve the management of trust assets for Indian country today and for generations to come.

Gale Norton is Secretary of the Interior.