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Interior pulls out of trust reform task force

WASHINGTON - Many tribal leaders now think it will take an act of Congress to bring about trust fund reform within the Department of Interior.

Upset by indications that Interior wanted to end the relationship with the Trust Fund Reform Task Force, Indian members postponed its Oct. 24 meeting in Billings, Mont. The session had been scheduled to coincide with the last of a yearlong series of tribal consultation meetings on trust reform with Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb.

The task force was formed to bring the tribal leaders and Interior officials together to repair the way tribal members' trust fund accounts are handled.

On Oct. 9, Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Interior James Cason told Jacqueline Johnson, executive secretary of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), that the department intended to end its relationship with the Trust Reform Task Force.

"We want to express that the request from DOI to end its relationship with the Task Force comes as a significant surprise," task force co-chairs Tex Hall and Sue Masten wrote in an Oct. 16 letter to McCaleb.

"They can't go back to Indian country and to the Congress and say tribes didn't want to work together," Hall told Indian Country Today. "They said McCaleb would be available for one hour and the other members of the Interior would not be there [for the Billings meeting]. We now requested a follow-up meeting in D.C. so they can't run away from us. They shouldn't fool tribes with consultation and then pull back and say it didn't achieve objectives."

John Wright, Interior spokesman, said the communication between Johnson and Cason may have been misinterpreted. He said Interior referred to the Billings meeting as the wrap-up meeting of the DOI/Trust Reform Task Force. He said specific language that indicated a separation of the relationship was not part of the conversation.

Hall said that Interior has met with the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association and is trying to get that organization to replace the task force.

"That is my opinion," Hall said. "This task force has 36 of the top leaders in Indian country, and Interior is disrespecting the government-to-government agreement."

John Dossett, NCAI attorney, said that reorganizing the task force to be more inclusive might be effective. "It needs to be clarified as not an exclusive club," he said. Dossett also said the scheduling excuse was just a "red herring."

Speculation from many tribal leaders, task force members and NCAI is that the administration is waiting to see how the U.S. Supreme Court rules in two cases affecting trust relationships and sovereignty. Task force members have also privately complained about Interior's progress. Interior is under pressure from federal courts to implement a workable plan by Jan. 6. The tribal leaders say the issue has existed for 80 years and seven months is not enough time to come up with a solution.

Tribal leaders want accountability and trust standards written into the system and Interior is advocating for an organizational approach. Key to the task force proposal is an independent accounting of the trust funds management. Interior wants it to be contained within the department.

Senators Tim Johnson, D-S.D. and Tom Daschle, D-S.D. recently wrote to Interior Secretary Gale Norton asking why the Bush administration had no plans to deal with the trust issue and legislation this session.

In a return letter, Norton did not mention any problems with the task force, but did say that department officials had devoted hundreds of hours "in consultation and listening meetings with tribal officials. The DOI/Tribal Leader Task Force on Trust Reform has had several multi-day meetings. These consultations have produced substantial agreement on: creating an under secretary of Indian affairs with line authority over all trust reform services; establishing trust centers at the regional level; appointing trust officers at the agency level; establishing an office of self-governance and self-determination that would report directly to a new under secretary for Indian affairs."

In Norton's letter she alluded to an under-secretary position, which is what task force leaders want. But, the leaders claim that Interior favors a deputy assistant secretary, despite what Norton stated. Tribes want an under secretary that can oversee the BIA and the DOI.

A hotly contested issue is the creation of an independent authority to oversee accountability. Another is allowing tribes and individuals to litigate over mismanagement of trust accounts.

Trust standards are important to make the federal government comply with a protocol that will work in an efficient manner for the leaseholders and the tribes. An independent accounting system would assure leaseholders of fair treatment, tribal leaders say.

"Hold to the standards," Hall said. "If you don't have a uniform standard it don't make a damned difference. I don't know why they don't get it. I think they feel they can blow this by the tribes and the judge without standards and then it will go away."

Hall said that an unfavorable Supreme Court decision in the trust relationship cases could lead to a lower rate at which the federal government charges for leased grazing land, oil and coal royalties and other resources it holds for individual Indians and tribes.

"We feel this administration wants the trust standard lowered. The poorest of the poor will be affected," Hall said.

The task force is charged with producing legislation intended to reorganize the way trust management is handled, and some members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee have shown interest in introducing such a bill. But no bill has yet been drafted by the Tribal leaders

"At first the BIA said all the tribes wanted the same old BIA," Hall said. "We want reform that goes beyond (the Department of Interior) efforts. We want accountability. If we don't have an independent commission ? this is critical for true accountability. If we don't have standards the feds have to adhere to, we have nothing."

In the letter to McCaleb, Hall and Masten said they were interested in a possible reformulation of the consultation process that would include all organizations and be more inclusive of tribes.

"We have learned some lessons over the last eight months, and we believe this time could be viewed not as an end point, but as a starting point for a renewed and improved working relationship," Hall and Masten stated. "There are more critical issues than ever for us to work on, and we know that they will only be resolved if tribes and the Department are working together."