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Interior shuffles boxes as Task Force ends

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - Congress has given a green light to the BIA reorganization, Interior Secretary Gale Norton told a telephone press conference of Native journalists Dec. 19 two days after the final formal meeting of the Joint Interior - Tribal Leaders Task Force on trust account reform.

Although the plan now looks like a done deal, it is receiving mixed reviews from national Indian leaders and has been sharply criticized by the Navajo Nation council. Norton said, however, that some of the objections would be addressed Jan. 6 when her department presents a federal judge with a comprehensive plan on fixing its management of the deeply troubled individual Indian monies accounts. The deadline, set by federal Judge Royce Lamberth in the Cobell class action suit, has loomed over the entire reorganization plan.

Norton mentioned, however, that the plan went beyond the trust debacle to emphasize tribal economic development. She said that she would "tantalize" departing BIA head Neal McCaleb into continuing to work with the Department on that field, an issue dear to his heart.

The event was also in part a tribute to McCaleb's 18 months of service as Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs. Norton said the Department had given him a going-away party the night before, and McCaleb sounded noticeably more relaxed about the trust fund case than he had at another press conference just two weeks earlier.

Asked about a recent TIME magazine series attacking Indian gaming, Norton said, "There are some concerns. Gaming is something that needs to have a strong regulatory oversight. In order to preserve the benefits of gaming, we need to have people on the National Indian Gaming Commission and in the BIA who will take their responsibilities seriously.

"They have to make sure that the benefits of gaming continue to flow to tribal members and do not simply become a conduit for others."

Norton praised the new appointees to the NIGC whom she recently swore in.

The reorganization changes the chain of responsibility for the BIA's Office of Gaming Policy but McCaleb said it would not change its functions dramatically. "Their direct report will be to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Development," he said.

The main purpose of the press conference, however, was to announce that the House and Senate appropriations committees had approved the reorganization. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies and its House counterpart released concurring letters Dec. 18. Both letters, Interior emphasized, praised its extensive round of meetings with tribal leaders. House subcommittee chairman Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., and ranking minority member Rep. Norman Dicks, D. -Wash., noted the "comprehensive process of informing the Indian community through exhaustive consultations."

Norton and McCaleb thanked tribal leaders and their own staffs for the personal sacrifices and the time "away from hearth and home" caused by the series of more than 45 meetings. Although the Joint Task Force is now formally disbanded, McCaleb and some tribal members indicated that it would continue to meet occasionally to monitor developments.

The process has left some high-level critics in Indian country, however. The National Congress of American Indians issued a statement Dec. 17 asking Interior "to return to consultation with tribal leaders on its trust reform efforts." NCAI criticized the reprogramming request to the Congressional committees as a means of automatically implementing the plan "without reflecting an opportunity for tribal review and comment."

Said Susan Masten, co-chair of the Task Force and chair of the Yurok Tribe of California, "It is difficult to comment on the reorganization charts, because there is not enough detail provided at this time. We saw a lot of boxes and lines, but it is hard to know what specific functions and personnel are intended to go into those boxes.

"The Department is proposing to create a group of Trust Officers, potentially at every BIA Agency Office across the country, but we have no real information concerning their duties or how their authority inter-relates to existing Agency Superintendents."

Tex G. Hall, president of the NCAI and co-chair of the Task Force, added, "At this point, the Department's plans still do not include trust standards. We believe that any trust reform package must have a clear definition of the trust standards; without standards there is no way to measure performance or to ensure accountability."

Norton said at the press conference, however, that the issue of standards would be addressed in the over-all plan to be delivered to Judge Lamberth.

The NCAI said that its negotiations for a trust reform bill with Interior had stalled in September "when the Department refused to consider including trust management standards and independent oversight in the draft bill."

The Navajo Nation Council attacked the reorganization plan even more harshly on Dec. 13. Speaker Edward T. Begay said, "The Department of Interior is so mired in the conflicts of interest which arise from its balancing of Indian and non-Indian interests that it cannot possibly be expected to act as a faithful trustee for Indian interests.

"These same conflicts of interest, of course, prevent the Department of Interior from conducting true trust reform."

The Navajo Council specifically objected that the plan "would result in the elimination of the BIA Navajo Regional Office and the dispersal of its functions, staff, and resources to the BIA Central Office, and other consolidated regional offices in locations distant from the Navajo Nation."

McCaleb said at the press conference that the plan left much to be desired. The parallel distribution of duties between BIA personnel and the Office of the Special Trustee for the trust accounts was locked into the legislation creating the OST, he said, and Congressional action would be required to make further changes. Relations between Interior and the Special Trustee have been highly strained in the past, but as a sign of current harmony, acting Special Trustee Donna Erwin spoke in tandem with McCaleb.

Norton and McCaleb repeated previous statements that it would take time to implement the reform, in large part because of the daunting task of recruiting and training the new corps of Trust Officers. Erwin added, however, that the new staff would place high value on customer service.