BIA reorganization opposed

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - BIA employees and Southwestern tribal leaders voiced tough opposition over the bureau's reorganization during two meetings with Department of the Interior officials, June 3.

The meetings kicked off the first of a series of outreach programs designed to educate Indian country on the Department's plan; but exchanges heated when questions went unanswered or were deflected by officials.

Pandering, vague explanations, and finally apologies from Jim McDivitt, deputy to the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, during the afternoon meeting highlighted the four-and-a-half hour gathering at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

"We were going to utilize video and the Powerpoint presentation," said Rob Baracker, director of the BIA's Southwest Regional Office, standing in front of a screen projecting a pink and purple organizational chart, "but after talking with the members here, we're not going to subject you to them. You folks, tribal leaders, have all been, over the course of the last couple of years, exposed to much of what we want to talk about. So we don't need to waste your time."

Amadeo Shije, chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council, pointed out these meetings should occur on a government to government level and strongly suggested Secretary Gale Norton or Acting Assistant Secretary Aurene M. Martin attend.

"Tribal consultation means the upper management sitting here with the governors because in essence, we're at the same level, just different departments," Shije stressed.

The plan moves some responsibilities from the BIA to the Office of the Special Trustee (OST), a separate DOI division dealing with monies collected from tribal trust lands, adds six regional fiduciary trust administrators and 80 trust officers, at the regional and reservation level

Among tribal leaders' deepest concerns is the expansion of OST funds and staff and most attending the meeting questioned the source of funding. OST's 2004 budget is nearly doubled, from $152 million to $275 million and although there's also $15 million that will be used to support OST's expansion into Indian country, nothing has been provided for structural changes in the BIA.

"We can create some of these positions but we don't have funding for them," explained McDivitt during the presentation. "We can assign [positions] to the organizations but we can't fill them until we have funding. Funds come from all sorts of different places and they change with regularity. I know it sounds difficult for you - I monitor what's happening by looking at the computer printout."

Picuris Pueblo Gov. Gerald Nailor expressed his feelings that much of the funds will be eaten up at the administrative level, in Washington and McDivitt acknowledged that high-level positions are already salaried, but not regional positions.

"I don't know if this part here is really looked at or seriously considered," Nailor said forcefully, holding a copy of the organizational chart and slapping the paper in the pink area, representing proposed BIA changes.

"Most of the funds that are directed towards tribes are basically eaten up over here," Nailor held the chart higher and indicated the purple area or higher-level positions. "And when they reach a small tribe like ours, we barely get the crumbs to operate. Will the money to fund the line officers be taken from tribal monies?"

The question went unanswered.

Other concerns, brought up by San Ildefonso Gov. John Gonzales, centered on the movement of positions from BIA offices. Moved positions would no long be given Indian preference.

Sandy Streets, chief of personnel in the Minerals and Management Service for Interior exchanged words with Gov. Gonzales. She explained although personnel already in converted positions will not lose jobs, when a position is vacated, Indian preference will not be practiced for those positions.

In response to repeated questioning, Streets responded "That is how the law was interpreted to me."

Not all of the meeting attendees were fighting the plan. Don Toya, superintendent for BIA in Mescalero, N.M. supports it wholeheartedly.

"In my 30 years at the BIA, this is the most far reaching and the most substantive reorganization that I've ever seen. I really see a significant improvement on the quality and professionalism of the services that the bureau can deliver," he said.

Nevertheless, tribal leaders vowed to continue opposition.

"It wasn't a presentation," said Claudia J. Vgil-Muniz, president of the Jicarilla Apache nation. "What the tribes here in the Southwest were looking for were answers to those charts that we were given. About some of the new positions, to me they're ghosts, they don't exist, they're not real."

Shije said the AIPC will reaffirm their resolution contesting restructuring. The council plans to approach President Bush about the situation.

"This is somewhat one-sided. Every time the pueblos, or for that matter, tribes throughout the country are consulted about changes in the administration, tribes are always last to find out, even sometimes after it's been implemented but that's the concern we have. We've always said that if you want to make changes in Indian country, talk to us as tribal leaders. We live it. We live this on a daily basis. We're the ones who know what's going on in Indian country. Not someone who sits up there in Washington and make decisions on behalf of us," said Shije.

Indian Educators Federation, the union representing BIA employees, is planning to file an injunction to curtail the series of meetings as well as block the plan.