Working group takes on trust reform

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TULSA, Okla. - A tribal working group on trust reform and settlement of the
long-running class action lawsuit known as Cobell got off to a good start
April 8, according to co-chairmen Jim Gray of the Intertribal Monitoring
Association and Tex Hall of the National Congress of American Indians.

"Going into it right now, we've got all the right people in the room who
need to be there," Gray said.

Gray, chief of the Osage Nation, hosted the meeting. "It's a real snapshot,
to see Indian country working on the needs of their communities."

Present for the occasion were David Mullen, senior counsel to the Senate
Committee on Indian Affairs on behalf of SCIA Chairman John McCain,
R-Ariz.; Sara Garland, Democratic staff director for the committee on
behalf of SCIA Vice Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Jim Hall, legislative
staff for the Committee on Resources in the House of Representatives on
behalf of Chairman Richard W. Pombo, R-Calif.; Kimberly Teehee, senior
advisor to the House Native American Caucus on behalf of co-Chairman Dale
Kildee, D-Mich.; and Cobell case attorney John Echohawk from the Native
American Rights Fund.

The working group formed to provide recommendations to the Senate Committee
on Indian Affairs and the House Resources Committee as they draft
legislation to settle the Cobell lawsuit and reform current trust systems.

The group met on April 11 in San Diego and will meet again May 2 and 3 in
Albuquerque, N.M., Hall said.

The group is open to every Indian nation and organization that wishes to
participate, according to a press release. On June 2 and 3, Dorgan will
host a listening session at United Tribes Technical College in North
Dakota.

The two lead committees on Indian affairs in Congress are working on draft
legislation that could be introduced in May or June, followed by summer
hearings and a second draft during the August congressional recess, the
release stated.

McCain and Pombo have both pledged Congress to "one good shot" at passing
legislation to reform trust management, secure tribal trust resources and
settle Cobell. The tribal working group sessions have the encouragement of
Congress, Gray said: "They are really interested in developing tribal input
on this ... We didn't have to tell them that."

The Cobell attorneys and lead plaintiffs are also cooperating, he added.
"And that has not always been the case."

The Tulsa meeting resulted in a recommendation to make land consolidation a
priority of the pending legislation, Hall said. Land fractionation - the
division of heritable interests in land among multiple heirs over
successive generations - has rendered an appreciable percentage of Indian
land economically useless, and accounting for fractionated interests and
their beneficiaries is a growing burden on the federal treasury.

Other concerns that got an airing include:

A prospective "fix" of trust management;

The future role of the Office of the Special Trustee within the Interior
Department;

The reorganization of the BIA and land-into-trust applications at the
bureau; and

An across-the-board 2 percent cut to BIA offices and its impact on lease
compliance staffing, tribal involvement in granting rights-of-way and
easements on tribal land and tribal involvement in land consolidation.

Hall said the OST, headed by a special master for Indian trust, continues
to absorb congressional appropriations that would go to the BIA for Indian
services otherwise. "It was supposed to be oversight, but now it's a whole
bureaucracy."

The ongoing BIA reorganization remains a sore point with tribes that feel
they have not been consulted, Hall said. "If we don't address how this will
be paid for, if we don't address OST, I don't think Indian country will be
part of this."

The BIA is not accepting or acting on tribal land-into-trust applications,
Hall noted. "And we don't agree with that."

Tribal involvement in the granting of rights-of-way and easements on tribal
land, as well as in the land consolidation process applied to individual
Indian landholders, is nonnegotiable in Hall's telling: "To not have that
authority is something tribes won't go for."

The 2 percent cut to BIA offices will weigh heavily on tribes in general,
Hall said. But for many tribes with trust land spread out over expansive
reservations, he said, "The main bread and butter is this leasing and
grazing." Lease compliance officers are already in short supply, and the
budget cutbacks will leave Indian land resources even less protected.

Hall said the working group has appointed a technical team to provide
accurate information on the much-debated computerization needs of the
overhauled trust management system. "The technical team will be helping us
draft the technical considerations we want in the bill."