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Great Plains tribes have plan for BIA

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WASHINGTON - The Great Plains Tribal leadership claims the planned expansion of the Office of Trustee is misguided, too heavy at the top administrative level and too costly at the tribe's expense.

The present Department of Interior reorganization plan, which is being implemented, meddles with the tribes' freedom to control their own destiny. Tribal officials have argued that control at the local level is necessary to provide self-determination. The DOI plan puts most administrative people at the regional level.

The tribes have argued for agency-level people from the beginning of the process more than two years ago, and also that trust standards be part of the plan.

The DOI plan to expand the role of the Office of the Special Trustee from an oversight position to the takeover of operational functions jeopardizes the oversight role that was its function when conceived in 1994. The need for independent review is required in order to monitor the OST.

Harold Frazier, chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that they want the decision making to take place at the local level so issues can be dealt with more efficiently.

"The department has acted without regard to the fact that reservations in different parts of the country have very different circumstances and need different programs if administration of the federal trust is to improve," Frazier said.

The tribal leaders claim the new reorganization plan works against the principles of self-determination as has been adhered to by every administration since President Rich-ard Nixon.

Frazier said he wants to see the trust management brought to the people so it can be administered in a timely manner. He said the presented DOI plan does not do that. "We are looking for solutions and Congress is our only option left," he said.

Frazier and other tribal leaders not only testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, they canvassed Congress and spoke to any willing ear that would listen. Frazier said they were given a good reception and staff and elected officials did listen.

Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Senate Minority Leader, agreed with Frazier and criticized the Bush administration for not progressing with this issue. "The time has come for Congress to become a more active partner in the search for a just and equitable settlement."

Self-determination tribes were exempted from the new reorganization plan because of their relationship with the government in self-determination. What the Great Plains leaders want is a similar exemption. They asked to have a pilot program formulated to fit the needs of the Great Plains tribes.

"We believe that a one-size-fits-all approach to trust reform is ill-conceived, as tribes across the country differ in size, population, land base and economy."

Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said it would be hard to imagine trust officers who could function effectively on his reservation given the size, sparse population and distances needed to travel.

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Twenty-five percent of the income on Cheyenne River comes from leases on grazing cattle. Some tribes have large timber or oil leases, so each tribe has different needs.

Land appraisals, which are frequent for the larger land based tribes, are difficult to achieve with only one appraiser for the entire region. The Great Plains leaders said they would prefer to hire appraisers at each agency on each reservation instead of hiring trust officers. There is also a need for technical positions for land management, such as surveyors, range conservationists, lease compliance officers, right of way specialists and accountants. The tribal leaders assert that their plan would best address those needs at a much more efficient cost.

The problem is that 300,000 American Indian trust account holders depend on the income from the lease of land, oil leases and timber sales, but many of these people are not receiving what they are owed. Each reservation should have agency level people who can ensure lease payments are correctly issued tribal leaders said.

The DOI continues to claim that its plan for reorganization and trust office expansion; called the Comprehensive Trust Management Plan, was written based on input from tribal leaders other government officials at the Joint DOI/Tribal Leaders Task Force meetings. Tribal leaders claim otherwise. The task force was disbanded at the requirement of the DOI with fewer than two years of work.

Ross Swimmer, special trustee, said the majority of the reorganization plan is completed. The plan for the Office of Special Trustee was approved in April 2003 and hiring will continue through 2005. The BIA is a much larger organization and its reorganization plan will take more of an effort.

The DOI plan puts the Office of Trust in charge of oversight of all trust responsibility, in essence overseeing itself, tribal leaders argue. Also the plan would put six trust administrators located in Albuquerque, N.M. who will oversee the staff of trust officers and trust account managers in or near BIA field office locations.

The trust officers at the lower levels will work with BIA agency personnel, Swimmer said. But the tribes want a more hands-on approach.

Joe Shirley Jr., president of the Navajo Nation told senate leaders that the Navajo leadership wants the reorganization plan financed with new money and not to be done at the expense of current programs. He said the Navajo leadership learned that funding would come from program dollars. Shirley made reference to the fact that the administration reduced Indian health facilities construction by $52 million and BIA education construction by $65 million while increasing the OST budget by $130 million.

Shirley added that it was the Navajo Nation's request that Congress appropriate enough funds for any reorganization plan. Another problem the Navajo, as well as other tribes, have with the plan is the lack of proper consultation. The DOI claims that 45 different consultation meetings were held on the road to creation of the DOI plan.

The tribal leaders strongly disagree with that assessment.

"The recent reorganization of the BIA and OST indicates that government-to-government consultation is replaced with a process of limited notice, inadequate response time, and the replacement with presentation of the reorganization for consultation about the reorganization," Shirley said.

The Navajo also complain that the DOI plan does not take trust standards into consideration.

Even though the DOI plan is nearly complete, the large land based tribes do not plan to let up on the pressure on Congress to change the plan to be more equitable to what the tribes want.

"We will push the legislature to get them to respect our proposal and support us. One system does not fit all tribes," Frazier said.