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BIA promises better communication

LAS VEGAS - Changes at the BIA are on the way but it doesn't seem that tribal leaders are quite ready to fully embrace the agency's reorganization.

Hoping to make the transition smoothly, Acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Aurene Martin and several other high-ranking officials with the agency have taken their presentation on the road for a series of "consultations" with tribal leaders across the country.

After stopping in Tulsa, Okla. in September to meet with representatives of the Eastern, Eastern Oklahoma, Southern Plains and Midwest regions, the BIA was in Las Vegas on Oct. 27 - 30 to talk with tribes from the eight remaining regions.

The purpose of the meetings, Martin said, was to solicit input from tribal leaders, address their concerns and answer any lingering questions they may have on the agency's plans.

"We wanted to tribes to have the opportunity to have all the information on what's going to happen and how it will impact them on issues or problems they are facing," Martin said in the lobby outside the forum which was held at the MGM Grand.

The presentation to the Western region was basically slides showing chain of command charts describing the new makeup of the agency. Martin explained the reorganization will improve the agency's management of trusts focusing on the interaction with the tribes by providing them with a single contact person - a Fiduciary Trust Officer - who will handle all information regarding trust assets. It will also increase productivity by separating staff responsibilities; quicken the distribution of trust assets to beneficiaries and allow for more flexibility at the regional offices, she said.

"One of the valid criticisms of the BIA is that we're making all the decisions at a centralized office," Martin said. "We are asking ourselves, 'why can't we be making them out at the agencies or regional offices.' Flexibility is what we're looking for."

In all, 80 new positions are being created within the BIA. Among the changes are two new Deputy Assistant Secretary posts. One will handle computer operations and record management and another will specialize in economic development policy in Indian country.

Martin said the hires at the local level will help spread the workload and allow employees to "concentrate of what they're hired to do." In the past, she said, workers were spread too thin and as a result their response to tribal concerns was often delayed.

About 40 people attended the Western Region presentation. Some were critical of the process saying they would have liked to hear more about how the reorganization is going to affect their interactions with the agency locally, and hope the re-structuring won't "create any more bureaucracy or hindrances" than already exists.

Others said they would like to be more involved in the regional hiring process and questioned why some smaller regional agencies won't have a trust officer assigned to them. Martin assured tribal leaders that a traveling trust officer would be made available.

And like the other consultations leading up to this one tribal leaders say they feel they've been left out of the process and still have concerns wondering how it will all shake out in the end.

"This is more like a formality. All indication is that this is going to happen," said a frustrated Daniel Eddy Jr., chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes Council. "We want to know what's going to happen at the agency level."

The BIA is facing further challenges as well. Martin said one-third of the agency's employees are eligible for retirement in the next five years and they're having trouble with recruitment.

"We are having a hard time attracting new people," she said. "We'd really like to recruit young Indian people to work for us."