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Weekend retreat leaves differences on trust reform

WASHINGTON ? Dissatisfied by limited access to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, many tribal leaders left the Capital after a much-vaunted three-day retreat vowing not to get involved in such a forum again.

The tribal delegates attended a consultation session Feb. 1 at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City Hotel in Arlington, Va., before a smaller group left for a weekend "retreat" with Secretary Norton in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

The 36 members of the Tribal Task Force on trust account reform hoped to spend significant "face time" with Norton in an effort to dissuade her from her current plans to deal with the BIA's debacle on management of Individual Indian Monies accounts.

Interior currently plans to strip the BIA of its trust management responsibility and form another agency to be called the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management, or BITAM. In the face of unanimous opposition from the tribes and heated complaints about the lack of consultation, BIA officials have conducted a series of after-the-fact meetings with tribal officials around the country, generally presided over by Neal McCaleb, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. The weekend retreat, said McCaleb, was a "historic" opportunity for direct tribal contact with the Secretary.

"This is the first time that I know of that a Secretary of Interior has afforded this kind of an opportunity with Indian Country for an open dialog in the intimate environment that she has provided," McCaleb said.

Yet after having dinner with tribal representatives on Friday night, Norton only meet with task force members for two hours on Sunday. Some participants complained there was little substantive talk. Some also criticized the exclusivity of the set-up.

"The Chippewa-Cree support the idea of trust reform, but the tribes have to be involved," said Alvin Windy Boy, chairman of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe in Montana. "The first thing we need to do is not buy into this divide-and-conquer mentality."

Many tribal leaders agreed with Windy Boy and only decided to attend "under protest". Most say they already feel that Interior is trying to force its plan on the tribes no matter what they say or offer in its place.

McCaleb and Interior Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles were on hand the entire weekend to listen to tribal concerns. While attending "under protest" tribal representatives still presented some alternatives. Tribes from Montana and Wyoming and organizations like the Inter-Tribal Timber Council and the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) offered their own proposal for trust reform, all looking to reform trust management, but in many ways contrary to Interior's plan.

The USET plan would consolidate trust functions within the BIA under a "Commissioner for Tribal Trust Management." The commissioner would then be guided by a "Tribal Trust Advisory Board" made up of tribally designated representatives. The proposal from tribes in Montana and Wyoming involved greater tribal participation, but considered the unique trust land problems faced by large land-based tribes. Some estimate that a total of seven tribal proposals are currently being put forward.

Following the weekend retreat, many attendees vowed never again to participate in such a limited forum. However, support for the tribal trust reform task force is growing. The task force is co-chaired by Susan Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe in California, and Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota. It devised a plan to hammer out a set of protocols for its operations and establish some criteria for looking at alternative trust reform proposals.

Future consultation sessions are also being planned for Feb. 14 in Portland, Ore. and in late February or early March in Billings, Mont. and Window Rock, Ariz.

"It is very interesting that while Indian Country is very patient and comes to these consultation meetings with due respect and open dialog, it is certainly not the case once again,'" concluded Ervin Keeswood, Navajo Nation Council Member.