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DOI reorganization plans and process unacceptable to tribes

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BILLINGS, Mont. - The Department of Interior presented a reorganization plan to the regional offices and tribal leaders this past month, but the plan is not acceptable to the tribes and the process was even less acceptable.

For more than a year tribal leaders and DOI, BIA and other federal agencies and departments formed a Trust Reform Task Force that was designed to bring all parties together in a collaborative coalition of government agencies and tribal entities to reorganize the BIA and develop a strategy on trust reform. However, the administration pulled out of the task force and declared the interaction between the tribes and government over.

Without prior knowledge and what some tribal leaders argue is a pre-emptive creation of a manual for BIA reorganization, the plan was presented to all regional BIA employees with instructions on how the plan would be implemented.

Tribal leaders from the Montana-Wyoming region walked out of a meeting on June 27 and proclaimed that it was not a consultation but an informational meeting.

DOI said the plan was a collaborative effort, however, in a letter to Sec. Gale Norton, Geri Small, president of the Wyoming-Montana Tribal Leaders Council (WMTLC) stated the organization's opposition to what was called "the unilateral reorganization of the most critical government agency that impacts the sovereignty and stability of tribal governments."

The tribal leaders, given a briefing at the end of the conference, walked out.

The DOI asserts that what took place during the task force meetings was consultation and that the strategy and plan written and introduced by former Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb was indeed created with ideas presented by the tribal leaders.

Not so, tribal leaders say. First, and admittedly the principle of standardization was not included in the new plan, an item that tribal leaders insisted on, according to Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of the American Indian.

"There were many consultation meetings through the task force process and there were numerous proposals. All of those were analyzed," said Dan DuBray, spokesman for the DOI.

He said there was a disagreement over what the trust standards would embody and that it would be a problem. He also said that some of the reorganization would be done through legislation.

"We took great care to include the consensus reached by the task force," DuBray said.

Tribal leaders who attended the task force said there was not a consensus that could be used to create a reorganization plan.

The DOI sent senior leadership to the 45 task force meetings and devoted more than 1,500 hours, DuBray said.

"This administration feels strongly about a solution to modernize the department and management of trust responsibilities," he said.

The complaint about improper consultation and input to the final plan by the tribal leaders was dismissed by the DOI.

"It is not a reflection of the reality and not accurate," DuBray said. "It is disingenuous at least to suggest there was no consultation."

He said the DOI takes its job seriously on trust reform and that the department has been called into sharp scrutiny over the issue that has been ongoing for more than 100 years.

"We are trying to move the ball forward," DuBray said.

The tribes have argued with continued consistency against the proposed changes in the reorganization plan. Tribal leaders continue to claim that the DOI and BIA failed to create an atmosphere of true consultation with each of the tribes according to federal requirements and executive orders.

Consultation, however, remains the key issue for the Montana and Wyoming tribes. The manual was presented and none of the tribes had a chance to review it before it was passed around to the regions.

Tribal members of the WMTLC said they are waiting to see if the DOI calls the meetings held at the regions consultation meetings. The Montana and Wyoming tribes, along with the tribes from the Great Plains in North and South Dakota and Nebraska have the majority of land the government holds in trust for tribes and individuals.

"We got a letter that said they wanted to meet with the tribes, but we were not given much time." Hall said that when the meeting was held in Aberdeen, S.D. some tribal leaders walked out also.

He added that he asked questions of the people conducting the meeting and they did not have the answers about the budget, about law enforcement and about education.

"There was no one from the central office at that meeting," Hall said.

"The central office didn't want to come out. They knew they would get hammered."

Tribal leaders said the rapid reorganization was because of the Cobell vs. Norton lawsuit that is underway. DOI, however, claims that this reorganization plan was part of what was discussed between the tribes and the government during the year-long task force meetings.

Reorganization of the BIA and the Office of Trust Management will most likely be taken care of with legislation. Senators Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; Tim Johnson, D-S.D. and John McCain, R-Ariz. introduced legislation that would require the DOI and BIA to reorganize according to congressional plans in conjunction with the tribes.

The reorganization plan that was presented by DOI is an attempt to "cover their tail," Hall said. Input to the legislation is coming from the tribes with the most likely outcome of a reorganization plan forced upon the department by Congress and mostly written by the tribes, which is what the tribes have wanted from the beginning.

Because of the litigation over the IIM accounts the government has been under pressure to present a plan that would satisfy the court, but so far Judge Royce Lamberth has not been satisfied with anything the government has presented and in fact has held many of the government officials in contempt. That included former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb and present Sec. Gale Norton. The case is now referred to as Cobell vs. Norton. The lawsuit was filed in 1996.

On July 17, an appeals court ruling overturned the contempt charges against Sec. Norton.

The NCAI will hold meetings in Portland, Ore at the end of the month to discuss the reorganization and trust reform legislation to develop strategies for legislative input.