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BIA reorganization shows cultural gap

WASHINGTON - On March 10, at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing on the BIA reorganization, a contest was met between business culture and the culture of Native America.

The businessmen, taking cues from the first U.S. president with a master's in Business Administration, George W. Bush, made the more articulate statements. Special Trustee Ross Swimmer and BIA boss Dave Anderson want tribes to get aboard a more efficient BIA, one that features the standardization of business processes across all points of contact with trust functions.

But tribal leaders, up against management axioms that hold sway from business meetings to board rooms and high government office, stood their ground against the promise of improved services to client tribes. They argued not for a changeless BIA, but for a tribally driven improvement process that won't sacrifice the treaty-based federal trust obligation to business efficiency.

This is the concern of many tribal leaders, who have loudly noted that the Bush administration's budget request for fiscal year 2005 plows resources into the reorganization at the expense of tribal services. At the same time, it shaves the Tribal Priority Allocation categories as measured against inflation. TPA funds are "key to tribal self-determination," according to the National Congress of American Indians - "the place where tribal human services programs are typically funded," added Edward K. Thomas, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian tribes of Alaska.

The tribal leaders did not wear their cultures on their sleeves so much at the hearing, focused as they were on fighting the reorganization and putting forward a plan of their own in its place, a plan that emphasizes agency-specific restructuring in reservation locales. But culture had come up often on the subject of reorganization at the end of February, with a host of tribal leaders in Washington for national Native organizational meetings. At the National Congress of American Indians' winter session, for instance, Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, insisted that local restructuring of the reservation-based bureau agencies is the only path to efficiency with BIA resources. "We lead that way of life that they would never know unless they led it? It's time to take a stand against this reorganization."

At an SCIA-hosted meeting Feb. 25, a succession of tribal leaders from every part of the nation spoke out against reorganization, often with culture as a reference point.

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Native culture as it has emerged during the BIA reorganization debate has seemed to have something in common with what Nehru, the renowned post-Imperial political leader of modern India, in his milestone of decolonizing literature, "Discovery of India" termed "that worthwhile something," enabling a culture to survive its occupation and eclipse.

Such a quality, be it cultural or artistic or intuitive or of the spirit, is as foreign as can be to the current global business culture. But Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, with the instinctive grasp of tribal issues, sized up that quality among tribes and phrased it in a flash. Responding to Joe Shirley, president of the Navajo Nation, who had criticized the reorganization as "one size fits all," Campbell observed from the committee chair that treaties were negotiated nation to nation, not with "one monolithic Indian group."

Swimmer insisted that BIA reorganization will go forward to completion, given the countless hours and many meetings, not to mention funds, devoted to it over two years. Even Campbell seemed half-resigned to that, for he noted the number of four- and five-member tribes, by implication too small for intensive local agency-level consultation on all the administrative detail of federal trust transactions.

Swimmer said he accepts that many tribes aren't going to get with the reorganization until they see tangible evidence of its success. Campbell seconded the tribes' wariness. "I certainly do not blame tribes for being very, very careful tribes? One hundred fifty years of dependency on the federal government have not worked very well for them. They just lose and lose and lose."

Anderson said the reorganization is one way to break that cycle. He struck a conciliatory note without mitigating Swimmer and the Bush administration's commitment to reorganization. It wasn't always clear whether he referred to the BIA or tribes or both. But by the end of the day, the Lac Courte Oreilles and Choctaw private sector entrepreneur had come as close as anyone would, on this occasion anyway, to bridging the cultural division on display at the hearing.

"One of the things I've realized is that change has to happen? At what point do we stop the merry-go [of repeating trust processes already proven flawed]? ? We all have in our hearts ? that change has to happen? Different regions are on different [computerized trust accountability] systems ? different departments are on different systems ?

"Standardization has got to become a way of life with us ? We're not trying to standardize tribes, but standardize the system we work with."