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Nations come together to change trust reform act

FORT YATES, N.D. – Tribes from different regions came together in a historic meeting to find common ground in order to provide input on the proposed Indian Trust Reform Act.

Tribal leaders from the Northwest, South, East and the Plains gathered to collectively make changes in the proposed act, Senate Bill 1439, as introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The portion of the act that deals with the settlement of the 10-year-old Cobell v. Norton case was not under discussion by the group, as many of the tribes do not have a stake in the Individual Indian Money accounts. Most all tribes, however, have been impacted by the litigation.

“In the East, we don’t have a lot of IIM accountholders. Our problem is that for the last 10 years, while this litigation is going on, tribes in the East have suffered because resources and all attention is focused on this litigation,” said Keller George, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes.

“It seems like every tribe is affected: $3 million has been taken out of accounts of programs [to pay plaintiffs’ attorney fees] that affect us. We think it could be done differently. If you ever tried to communicate with the [BIA and heard responses such as] ‘Can’t do by Internet,’ ‘Have priorities,’ ‘Not gotten to by the right people’ – these are issues for us,” George said.

Because of the litigation, federal District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the BIA computers shut down due to lack of security.

“I don’t know what the final figure is; it’s not my place. Ideally, it should be negotiated between the claimants and the federal government. The feds and claimants have not come together. Nobody in Indian country is benefiting at this time,” George said.

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and USET brought changes the two groups have made in the trust reform act. The Plains-area tribal leaders were asked to add their input. The three groups represent some 83 tribes.

“Cobell has to be put on table and dealt with and be over with. We are being held hostage,” said Ernie Stensgar, chairman of the ATNI.

“I take my hat off to Eloise [Cobell, lead plaintiff in Cobell v. Norton] for doing the lawsuit, but using Cobell to take program dollars to pay attorneys is wrong.

The reform act is a working document, or “work in progress,” and the tribes have the ability and right to add their input.

“The big thing here is that the BIA gets restructured and the BIA head becomes a deputy secretary, and we have something to say about it,” said Lyle Marshall, chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe of northern California.

“The office of special trustee has no statutory authority, yet gets hundreds of millions [of dollars] to do whatever it wants ��� that’s why this is an important piece of legislation,” he said.

The reform act, as written by McCain, did not include any oversight of trust reform, but an entire section dealing with oversight by an inspector general has been added by the tribal leaders.

Randy Scott, adviser to the Northwest tribes, said language on establishing standards was in the original bill, then removed at McCain’s request. “We need to continue to push it.”

With oversight, a definition or standard must be established to determine what is, in fact, a violation of trust responsibility.

“When they [the BIA] are reviewing our programs, we will be hit with a higher standard than they will apply to themselves. At some point, since they are our trustee, there has to be a standard. My thought [is] that we try to make [them] apply it to themselves,” said Steven Emery, attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The reform act would set up a commission, comprised of seven members and a task force that would serve as an adviser to the department on trust reform issues. Many tribal officials said that this task force is more important than the commission. The commission will review trust asset management laws that will be in effect at the time the commission is formed.

“This is not a new discussion; we had it in the task force,” George said, referring to a task force that was set up two years ago and abandoned before it completed the mission, according to tribal leaders.

“The department was unwilling to come up with standards. The standards were set at that time to approve at the last session. The department wanted an undersecretary, but without any oversight. We need the language in that section.”

The commission will terminate two years after its first meeting, and tribal leaders request that a report be issued after 18 months of work. At the time the commission is terminated, the task force will begin with 60 days, according to changes tribal officials want to see in the act.

Tribal officials added language to the act concerning the makeup of the task force. It shall consist of 12 members representing federally recognized tribes on a regional basis and will be selected by the secretary of the Interior Department.

The legislation is important to all tribes because it reforms the BIA and will make the assistant secretary a deputy secretary. But to get the bill to honestly reflect the needs and desires of Indian country, tribes must come together, Marshall said.

The Plains tribes, or larger land-based tribes with the bulk of IIM accounts, see Title I, or the Cobell settlement portion of the bill, as the most important part. What the USET and ATNI groups heard was another strong position on the act. The two coastal groups were concerned mostly with the remainder of the bill.

“The bill is bigger than just the settlement. Titles II through VI deal with all aspects of trust management, individual and tribal. We didn’t look at that from the perspective of the individual,” said Danny Jordon, Hoopa Valley.

Hoopa Valley is a small reservation with some fractionated land. The tribe is buying back some of the land and is consolidating the land. According to the regulations and the act, a tribal member will have to pay for any land on the reservation at fair market value.

“Why would we want to do that? Why would we want to pass the cost on to them?” Marshall said. He added that Hoopa Valley allows tribal members to purchase land at lower rates, which “probably is not in compliance with the law.”

Interior has commented only on the Cobell settlement portion of the bill, but in general the mood is that it supports the bill in principle. On March 28, at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the department made comments.

“I look at this as the beginning. One of the things that will drive this legislation is settlement of Cobell,” Frazier said.