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New Commission on Indian Trust

WASHINGTON – The federal agency that has long failed to properly manage Indian trust assets has announced a decision to create a commission to evaluate Indian trust administration and reform. Whether the agency can be trusted on this matter remains to be seen.

Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in an announcement released on July 7 that his proposed commission would build on what he called the “progress” of the Cobell settlement. The settlement, approved June 20 in D.C. district court, is scheduled to grant $1.9 billion of a total of $3.4 billion in the deal to the department to create a new program that will buy back fractionated lands from individual Indians. Fractionation has been one of the problems Interior has cited in its reasoning for faulty record keeping over the years. Through the course of the case, which ran since 1996, it was found that Interior mismanaged the accounts of thousands of Indians, likely undercutting their financial earnings by large margins. Exactly how much Interior stole from Indians isn’t known because a full accounting has never been conducted—nor is one ever scheduled to occur. How Interior can do right by Indians without doing such an accounting remains to be seen.

Looking beyond those difficulties, Salazar offered lofty language and great hope for the new development. “This Commission will play a critical role in our forward-looking, comprehensive evaluation of how Interior manages and administers our trust responsibilities to the First Americans,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the Commission as we move forward on President Obama’s commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for American Indian nations.”

Salazar’s statement offered little by way of specifics on what he expects the commission to do and how he expects it to accomplish its goals. With some news reports indicating that Salazar isn’t expecting to stay on at Interior much longer, some in Indian country wonder how committed he will truly be to seeing the commission through.

Officially, according to an Interior press release, the Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform “will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of Interior’s trust management and provide recommendations on how to improve performance.” According to the secretary’s charter, the five-member commission will be expected to examine Interior’s performance on trust management, seek input from affected individuals and tribes, identify opportunities for enhancing accountability, responsiveness, and efficiency, as well as provide recommendations on improvements to the current trust administration system.

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Again, what exactly that means and how that will play out is unknown at this point. And the fact that the very agency that will host the commission is the same agency that failed Indians for so many years was not noted by Salazar in his announcement. What is known is that the small commission will have a quite difficult task ahead of it. If it is to oversee all aspects of Indian trust reform, it will be taking on an area that hundreds of Interior officials have never been able to get right to date.

Until August 7, Salazar is seeking nominations and input from the public on individuals to serve on the new commission, as well as comments on the commission’s proposed charter. Interior officials said the announcement fulfills one of the actions Salazar outlined in a 2009 Secretarial Order regarding steps to be taken upon approval by the U.S. District Court of the Cobell settlement. They noted that on June 20, the district court approved the $3.4 billion settlement, “paving the way for payments to as many as half-a-million American Indians to resolve their class-action litigation regarding the federal government’s management of individual trust accounts and assets.”

“Recent approval of the Cobell settlement by the U.S. District Court signaled the beginning of a new era in the U.S. Government’s relations with American Indian communities,” Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes said in a statement. “We must carry out our trust responsibilities in a pro-active and transparent manner, and the establishment of this commission is an important step in the process.”

Following the 30-day comment and nominations period, and in consultation with trust beneficiaries, Salazar plans to appoint a chair and four members. Members are expected to have experience and/or expertise in trust management, financial management, asset management, natural resource management, and federal agency operations and budgets, as well as experience as account holders and in Indian country.

In coming days, Salazar and Hayes are scheduled to attend regional consultation meetings with tribal leaders to begin discussions on the land consolidation component of the settlement. “These discussions will provide valuable input in developing and implementing a strategy to benefit tribal communities and help free up trust lands,” according to Interior’s press release.

A copy of the Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reforms charter is available online.