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McCaleb: Indian beneficiaries deserve federal accountability

Throughout our nation's history, the relationship between the U. S. Government and American Indians has left a troubling and contentious legacy that continues to this day. A feeling of hopelessness on many reservations ? where unemployment is often staggering and the associated ills of alcoholism and lawlessness spiral out of control ? underscore this climate of mistrust. Tribal leaders struggle to cope in this difficult environment, presiding over marginal economies in remote locations.

Many tribes and individual tribal members build economies utilizing land and natural resources held in trust on their behalf by the government. Yet, the management of individual land-based trust accounts has grown increasingly difficult over the past decades as new generations of account holders arise, creating complicated, fractionated interests of Indian allotments. In some cases, ownership shares of these properties can be measured by the 10-thousandth or less ? a mind-boggling prospect to the average American, yet it is a reality that contributes to confusion and even the stagnation of economic goals in Indian country.

As the task of overseeing the Indian trust has become more complex, however, the federal government's management structure has remained more or less intact. But this month, the Interior Department has taken a bold step to move Indian trust management into a new era, with increased accountability, new checks and balances to protect Indian interests, and better access at the local level for tribal and individual Indian trust beneficiaries.

Through this major initiative to reorganize the duties of the BIA and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST), the Department is building on a strong, productive and ongoing dialogue with tribal leaders. Over most of the past year, for example, the Department held more than 45 meetings with tribal leaders on this subject and participated in a joint Tribal/DOI ask force on Indian trust reform at locations throughout Indian country. During that time, we have collected more than 5,500 pages of transcripts and dedicated more than 1,500 hours of senior staff time to these meetings alone. As a result, the Indian trust management plan we are advancing builds upon the ideas and concepts that were generated from those meetings and uses what we learned during recent congressional hearings on this important subject.

The plan I have deve1oped jointly with Special Trustee Donna Erwin greatly enhances our ability to provide direct and efficient services to Indian trust beneficiaries. The plan dedicates the personnel and the necessary resources to streamline beneficiary services. At the same time, we have preserved our emphasis on Tribal contracting and compacting to deliver many trust-related services. The plan preserves the existing staff and monetary resources of BIA and OST.

In my view, one of the most important aspects of this plan is its emphasis on economic development ? creating the position of Assistant Secretary of the Interior for American Indian Economic Development. As we learned during our historic summit meeting in Phoenix this past September, tribes who best utilize their strengths and resources have the best opportunity for success. It is the federal government's responsibility, in its role as trustee, to do its utmost to encourage economic development in Indian country.

At the same time, we have a moral and legal responsibility to introduce a new level of accountability to Indian trust management. A federal court that has taken up the issue of trust fund accounting requires the Department to submit a strategic plan on the matter by January 6, 2003. This deadline leaves no time for Congress to act on any legislative elements of reform. The Department has now taken action to the greatest extent allowed under our current statutory framework.

The blueprint we have developed is a foundation of our strategic plan to perform an historical accounting of the hundreds of thousands of individual trust accounts now on the books. This organizational blueprint strengthens management accountability while focusing on the efficient delivery of trust services.

As you have read in the pages of this newspaper, I will retire from public service at the end of the month. I am proud of the Herculean effort that has been brought to bear on improving the management of the Indian trust and salute tribal leaders for their guidance in the creation of this plan. It represents the dedication of Secretary Gale Norton and the senior management team of the Department, but would not be possible without our continued partnership and consultation with tribal leadership.

The author, who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, will be retiring from his position as Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, at the Department of the Interior, at the end of this month.