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Obama's Indian Trust Commission Takes Form

WASHINGTON – With the Cobell settlement on appeal in federal court, the Obama administration is moving ahead with its efforts to reform federal management of Indian trusts.

A common misperception about the Cobell case is that it somehow rectifies the trust mismanagement problems of the Department of the Interior, which led to the Cobell lawsuit in the first place. Not so. Many Indian beneficiaries wanted the case to resolve those matters, but those issues proved too complicated, so they got shelved—both in the legal and federal bureaucracy spheres.

The Obama administration vowed when the settlement was announced in December 2009 that it would move forward trying to fix the system so Indians didn’t continue to get shortchanged on their trust holdings. Interior currently managed 56 million surface acres and 57 million acres of subsurface mineral estates for 384,000 Individual Indian Money accounts and about 2,900 tribal accounts for more than 250 tribes.

Two years later, the U.S. Department of the Interior has named five American Indians to sit on a national commission that will study how to make sure the American Indian trust system can be trusted. The team is expected to come to conclusions in two years. How they will do that is yet unknown, and it will no doubt be a difficult process.

Interior officials said the Indian team is tasked with undertaking “a forward-looking, comprehensive evaluation of Interior’s trust management of nearly $4 billion in Native American trust funds.” They added that the commission was “part of President Obama’s commitment to fulfilling this nation’s trust responsibilities to Native Americans.”

"This commission will play a key role in our ongoing efforts to empower Indian nations and strengthen nation-to-nation relationships," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in naming the appointees. “The five members each bring extensive experience and knowledge to the commission, and I look forward to their findings and recommendations for how we can fully meet our trust responsibilities to the First Americans.”

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“Our trust administration must be more transparent, responsive, customer-friendly and accountable in managing these substantial funds and assets,” Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes added. “Building upon the progress made with the historic Cobell Settlement, this commission will help usher in a new era of trust administration.”

The members of the Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform, as listed by the Interior Department, follow:

  • Chair - Fawn R. Sharp is the current president of the Quinault Indian Nation, the current President of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and a former administrative law judge for the State of Washington and Governor of the Washington State Bar Association.
  • Dr. Peterson Zah, an established leader in Native American government and education circles, was the last chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council and the first elected President of the Navajo Nation.
  • Stacy Leeds, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law and former Director of the Tribal Law and Government Center at the University of Kansas School of Law.
  • Tex G. Hall, current chairman of Three Affiliated Tribes and past President of the National Congress of American Indians, is currently serving as Chairman of the Inter Tribal Economic Alliance and is the Chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association.
  • Bob Anderson, an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (Bois Forte Band), has six years of experience working at the Department of the Interior from 1995-2001 as Associate Solicitor for Indian Affairs and as counselor to the Secretary of the Interior on Indian law and natural resource issues. He is currently a Professor of Law and Director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington, and holds a long-term appointment as the Oneida Indian Nations Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

According to Interior, members of the team were selected after a public solicitation for nominations and, in consultation with trust beneficiaries, evaluated the candidates on the basis of their expertise and experience, including in government and trust, financial, asset and natural resource management. Members will serve without compensation.

The team is expected within two years to “complete a comprehensive evaluation of Interior’s management and administration of the trust assets and offer recommendations of how to improve in the future,” according to an Interior press release.