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Tribal task force gets organized

SAN DIEGO, Calif. ? Those Christmas checks for Indian leaseholders might be getting out by Easter.

While attempts to reorganize the Interior Department's trust fund management move slowly ahead, thousands of Individual Indian Monies (IIM) account holders have yet to be paid. The BIA's consultation meetings and formation of a tribal task force are grinding along.

Twenty of the 24 tribal leaders who will form the task force have so far been selected. The group will offer alternatives to the almost universally condemned proposal from Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to split trust fund management from the BIA. At a reorganization hearing held here Jan. 17, not enough task force members had been selected to convene a regular meeting so a caucus was held instead, Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said.

The San Diego meeting was the fifth of a series of 11 hearings across the country discussing the realignment of the trust fund management.

As in the other meetings, tribal leaders in California expressed unanimous opposition to Norton's proposal. The opposition prompted establishment of the task force to provide an alternative.

California tribes have little trust fund involvement since they do not have large land bases that support leasing. Nonetheless, leaders were unanimous in arguing that Norton's proposal would begin to dismantle the BIA. The government's proposal would create an agency for trust fund management that would report to the Bureau and be administered by former BIA head Ross Swimmer. Many of the tribes also oppose Swimmer's involvement.

"Each of us here today realizes that reorganization is necessary," said Robert Smith, chairman for the Pala band of Mission Indians in San Diego County

"We believe that reorganization can be successful but it must have support of the people it's designated to protect."

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb told the gathering that he wanted to lessen the fears many tribal leaders have about reorganization. He said that in change the outcome is not exactly known and that with improvement change would have to occur.

Hall explained the current status of the task force. "Three regions were not finalized so we couldn't have a meeting," he said. "We have to have everyone at the table, that's the purpose of the task force.

"We called it a tribal caucus and talked about organization, a charter and how we will vote, whether by consensus or by simple majority. We established a committee of five leaders and spent the majority of time doing that. The other big issue we discussed was the BIA computer shutdowns, and as to why they are still shut down," Hall said.

Also to be established is the organization of the task force. Hall and Sue Masten, former president of NCAI, were to act as chairman and co-chairwoman. Hall said that some of the task force members felt that the chairman and co-chairman should be chosen from within the group.

Both sides said they were hopeful that a computer expert from IBM would be able to review the government's proposals for starting the computers so the lease checks could be cut and issued. A new plan should be in place very soon, both sides said.

"The problem with the Internet is the government's creation. In April of 2000 they said they would deal with the problem, but they didn't. The judge had no good choices (when he ordered the computer shut down)," said Keith Harper, attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.

But while negotiations are under way to put the computers online to pay leaseholders, the task force is considering at least four alternative plans to realign BIA trust funds management.

The task force will look at those four and others as they emerge from the different areas and either choose one or take the best of what they have to work with.

"As members of this task force, we have a duty to carefully consider the existing proposal and alternatives," said Governor Bill Anoutubby of the Chickasaw Nation.

"While it may take some time to find a solution to the quandary facing us today, it is vitally important that tribal leaders play a major role in designing a suitable method for proper management of these assets.

"Once we come to a consensus among tribal leaders on a suitable course of action, it is imperative that Interior take our recommendations seriously. The only way we are going to find a solution is through good faith, government-to-government negotiations between tribal leaders and federal officials,"

Hall said Norton assured him that she supported the task force and would try to come up with $1 million to help fund it. He said she also supported the executive order issued by former President Clinton that directs agencies to conduct consultations with the tribes. Norton was not available to comment.

Hall added that he was cautiously optimistic about some actions taken by Norton and the Department of Interior in the trust fund matter, the payment of leases and the realignment proposals.

The next task force meeting would be in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 1. Hall said Norton would be available then.

Task force members chosen to date are: Evin Keeswood and George Arthur, council members of the Navajo Nation, Gary McAdams, president of the Wichita and Affiliated tribes of Oklahoma and James Potter, treasurer of the Prairie Band Potawatomi for the Anadarko Area; Alvin Windy Boy, chairman of the Chippewa-Cree Nations at Rocky Boy in Montana and Ivan Posey of the Eastern Shoshone for the Rocky Mountain Area; Ernest Stensgar of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe in Washington for the Northwestern Area; Roger Trudell of the Santee Sioux Tribe and Richard Monette from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa for the Great Plains; Gov. Bill Anoutubby, Chickasaw, and Charles Tillman, Osage, for the Southern Plains; Keller George, Oneida, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes, and Tim Martin, director of USET, for the Eastern Tribes; Joe Williams, president of Organized Village of Saxman, and Mike Williams of Village of Aniak, for Alaska.

The Sacramento Area and the Southwestern Areas had not chosen task force members at the time of the San Diego meeting.