Skip to main content

View from Washington: Norton warmly received

Washington - Interior Secretary Gale Norton kicked of the official consultation sessions over the reorganization of the BIA's trust management responsibilities with promises to be more inclusive of tribal perspectives. However, while her words were warmly received by those tribes in attendance, many questions and concern are still being posed by tribal leadership.

Interior Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles told tribal leaders the purpose of the consultation meetings is to "involve affected and interested parties in the process of organizing the Department's trust asset management responsibility function." After completing the first session in Albuquerque, New Mexico, most tribes supported three positions. 1) They are against the current proposal as understood; 2) a task force should be formed to participate in the development of any plan; and 3) all plans for the redirection of appropriations should be stopped.

Secretary Norton agreed to the idea of a task force, but said that details about the new agency are sketchy since Interior plans to consult with field staff, tribes and others to shape the final plan. Tribal leaders and Indian plaintiffs in the trust funds case, Cobell v. Norton, have been pushing for reform of the current trust management process, but are concerned about this new proposal, which they say was hastily development under legal pressure, without tribal consultation.

Norton has also indicated that she is in the process of identifying BIA funds currently used for trust functions to establish the new agency. Some believe that up to $100 million will be set aside for the agency's creation.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

That idea, and the way Interior is going about planning for it, is raising eyebrows. Tribal leaders and some in Congress think the Department needs to come up with a clear plan, in consultation with tribes, before they begin planning the redistribution of tribal appropriations.

Senators Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle, Democrats of South Dakota, urged the Senate Appropriations Committee not to approve Interior's request to transfer around $200 million from the BIA budget to set up the new BITAM. "I am particularly concerned that the new Bureau of Indian Trust Assets management was created without adequate consultation with tribal leaders," said Johnson.

Daschle also criticized Interior's "drastic overhaul," "especially while they are in the midst of litigation concerning the fund's management."

Nick Rahall (D-WV), ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee, expressed similar concerns. He has requested a comprehensive oversight hearing with Interior officials about their plan. The hearing is scheduled for February 2002.

Tribes were also highly critical of Interior's decision to appoint Ross Swimmer, former head of the BIA and Chief of the Cherokee Nation, to head the Administration's efforts to develop the new agency. Many said that Swimmer did not have the support of Indian Country.