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BIA says checks may be ready to mail

ANCHORAGE, Alaska ? The BIA came to Alaska to announce that trust account checks may be coming out soon.

Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb said at the Jan. 23 consultation meeting, sixth in the series, that he had "good news" for trust account holders. McCaleb announced that on Jan. 22, the court monitor, a consultant and the Bureau of Indian Affairs had reached an agreement that would allow some systems to come back online. Now, McCaleb says checks can be written in the very near future, but some of the systems that determine how much each account holder is owed are still off-line.

Though progress has been made, McCaleb added that he could not claim that the "check is in the mail".

In addition to late checks, McCaleb confirmed that addresses are unknown for 40,000 account holders.

Alaska tribal leaders met here Jan. 23 in the sixth of the BIA's consultation meetings. Representatives of Alaska Native organizations and villages were joined in the meeting by several tribal leaders from across the country who came to Alaska to follow the consultation process. The meetings are discussing the Interior Department's new plan or Indian trust fund reform and the newly proposed Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management or BITAM.

Alaska tribal leaders joined with tribal leaders from the first five meetings in their objections to BITAM. Alaska Intertribal Council President Mike Williams took a hand vote at today's meeting of the approximately 50 tribal representatives. Opposition was unanimous.

Margaret Roberts, secretary of the Alaska Intertribal Council and vice-chair of the Wood Island Village, near Kodiak, Alaska, said local tribal leaders received short notice of the meeting and very little information about Interior's plan for trust reform. Roberts raised doubts that individual trust account holders, those who may be most affected by trust reform, were notified at all.

Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) came to Anchorage to meet with Alaska Native leaders to request support for NCAI's proposal of a Tribal Task Force to take an active role in trust reform. Alaska leaders organized an impromptu caucus during the meeting's lunch break to discuss participation in the task force and to evaluate Interior's proposal. If representatives from all 12 BIA regions can be selected in time, a meeting between the Tribal Task Force and Department of Interior Secretary Gale Norton will take place the first weekend in February.

Alaska tribal leaders took advantage of their meeting with McCaleb not only to discuss trust reform, but to bring forward a variety of issues of importance to Alaska tribes. Several speakers invited McCaleb to visit villages and continue talks with members of Alaska Native communities.

While the meeting took place in Anchorage, the House Resources Committee announced that it will hold a hearing on the Interior Department's trust reform and its proposed Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management on Feb. 6.

Oklahoma Rep. Brad Carson, a member of the Cherokee Nation, will be a member of the panel. Carson says he's keeping an open mind on the proposed new agency, and wants to hear what all sides have to say on the matter.

The committee has invited Neal McCaleb, Steven Griles, Ross Swimmer and Tom Slonaker to appear as witnesses.

Neva Reece is National News Assistant for National Native News (distributed by Public Radio International), which provided this article to ICT.