BIA asks tribes to share ideas for change at bureau

DENVER - Call it modernization, reorganization or a new way of doing business: but the BIA is headed in a rebuilding direction and wants to enlist the help of Indian country.

The BIA staff, under the direction of Cart Artman, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs; and Majel Russell, deputy assistant secretary, has conducted listening sessions in every region to gather comments and ideas from Indian country about how the BIA should look.

These meetings, according to Artman and Russell, are not consultation meetings and no plan has been laid out on the table. The changes will come from Indian country, they insist.

The 64th annual National Congress of American Indians convention in November was an opportune time to conduct one more meeting while tribal leadership from across the country was present and able to come together and share ideas for change. Each region and each tribe have different agendas.

''We have gone through a similar process. The task force [five years ago] started great and what disturbs tribal leaders is they [Interior] stopped listening.

''[Interior] went to Congress with not what the tribal leaders said. There seems to be a new sense of meaningful dialogue,'' said Jim Gray, chief of the Osage Nation.

Time is running short on any dramatic change because Artman, who brought the initiative forward, will leave office in 13 months.

''This won't be a one-time effort; it will take a few meetings. All tribes and the BIA need to partner up. To expect any real improvement it will take time, it won't happen next year,'' NCAI President Joe Garcia said. ''We have to be open-minded, we can't piecemeal the solutions.''

The change is prompted by some urgency. Artman said that in five years, nearly 50 percent of all BIA employees will be eligible for retirement and they will take the knowledge of the BIA with them. There are concerns about dealing with a declining budget and the impact of inflation, he said.

''When we proposed this modernization, we avoided the word 'consultation'; we wanted to interact with Indian country and engage in proactive listening,'' Artman said.

''We want to move away from 'us and them.' It is 'us.'''

Russell said she knew of the suspicion involved with the process because of the tribal-Interior task force on reorganization that occurred five years ago when Interior did not listen.

''This is the one time tribes can be in the driver's seat with the bureau and not let others decide,'' Russell said.

Four resolutions submitted for NCAI approval by tribes all opposed any modernization process that did not include them as the driving force. Some resolutions opposed the consultation process, and Russell and Artman asserted the meetings were not consultation meetings.

Another factor comes into play: it is difficult for tribes to respond when there is no plan. It is customary, tribal leaders claim, that a plan is submitted and they just respond. This time, the tribes can create the plan.

What has been heard so far is that the Office of the Special Trustee must be placed under the BIA, more local and regional control is needed, and that a reduction in red tape for Public Law 638 contracts must be included in any change. Tribes and regions also argue that the ''one size fits all'' approach will not work.

As for filling the jobs of BIA employees who retire, tribal leaders emphasized that members are graduating from colleges at a higher rate than ever before. They are knowledgeable about the reservations and can relate to the people.

''We have a lot of educated people. We as tribes need to stick together and you need to see that we are successful. Maybe this is a start for Indians to run the BIA,'' said Carl Venne, chairman of the Crow Tribe and of the Wyoming-Montana Tribal Leaders Council.

A solution is to recruit qualified American Indian youth to fill the jobs at the BIA, something that has not been a place that has attracted young people in the past, tribal leaders said.

As for some retirements, tribal leaders said they would applaud a few of them at the local and regional levels.

''We are trying to run the bureau within an antiquated process. There are a lot of people who don't trust the bureau, and there is a lot of mistrust in tribal governments,'' said Ned Norris, chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation.

''I feel you want to do things better, you have a good heart. We need programs that are tribally driven,'' Norris said.

Jacqueline Johnson, NCAI executive director, agreed that any change has to be tribally driven. She offered to use NCAI as a resource to collect and organize ideas that tribes submit.

''If tribally driven we can make it inclusive of organizations; we can bring in other institutions,'' Johnson said.

Each region has different needs and issues, as was made evident by much of the discussion at the meeting. There are three different types of tribes: self-governance, those who use 638 contracts, and the direct-service tribes.

Artman said he understands the differences in the regions, especially since he had recently held a meeting with the Great Plains tribes, and said they were strong in their stand as direct-service tribes.

Four resolutions submitted for consideration at the NCAI annual convention opposed any modernization plan that did not include tribal input and meaningful consultation.

''You did go out to Indian country and we have to remember they [BIA] didn't present a plan. How much can get done that will carry over to the next administration?'' asked W. Ron Allen, NCAI treasurer and chairman of the Jamestown S'klallam tribal council.