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Cobell | Politics | Trust
Indian issues await Obama in Washington


Trust reform and land-into-trust are being identified as two of the biggest Indian issues that await president-elect Barack Obama.

The first African-American president in history takes office on January 20, 2009. With the inauguration rapidly approaching, the
Government Accountability Office said "long-standing financial and programmatic deficiencies" at the Interior Department need action by an Obama administration.

The GAO pointed to ongoing trust reform activities and "weaknesses" in the management of over $3 billion in Indian trust funds on its 2009 transition website. A January 2007 report from the agency cited progress on the issue but noted that the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians completed only three out of eight key reform goals over nine years.

The GAO also cited shortcomings in the land-into-trust process, an issue considered by the U.S. Supreme Court last week. The agency recommends the new assistant secretary for Indian affairs develop specific timelines for the evaluation of tribal applications and implement stronger guidelines to help state and local governments.

Trust reform and land-into-trust were sticking points for the Bush administration and they are among a slew of items being raised for Obama as he prepares to enter the White House. The president-elect discussed both issues in his campaign platform though Change.Gov, his transition website, doesn't mention tribes, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Americans or Native Hawaiians.

"Obama is committed to meaningful reform of the broken system that manages and administers the trust lands and other trust assets belonging to tribes and individual Indians," the platform states. "Further, he is committed to resolving equitably with both tribes and individual Indians litigation resulting from the past failures in the administration and accounting of their trust assets."

Obama has promised to appoint a high-level Indian adviser at the White House and hold yearly summits with tribes. On a daily basis, tribes will mainly deal with his nominees -- especially the Special Trustee for American Indians and the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

The Special Trustee post is currently held by Ross Swimmer, a former Reagan administration official and former Cherokee Nation chief. Tribes were frustrated by his expansion of the OST, whose budget siphoned funds from the Bureau of Indian Affairs over the last seven years.

The assistant secretary for Indian affairs post, which oversees the BIA, is currently vacant. Three different presidential nominees held the position in the past seven years, drawing complaints from tribes about a lack of leadership and vision at the agency.

No names have surfaced so far for either post. Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation who advised the Obama campaign on Indian issues, said after the election that he won't be joining the new administration.

"I have no plans to leave my job," said Harper, who is a partner at the Kilpatrick Stockton firm in Washington.

Harper has served as co-counsel for the Cobell trust fund lawsuit since it was filed in 1996. A federal judge recently ruled that the plaintiffs are owed $455.6 million, an amount far lower than the billions cited in court papers.

The plaintiffs are pursuing an appeal, which will drag out the case for another year or so. A settlement from the Obama administration could finally put an end to the contentious issue.

Some names have surfaced in press reports about the Secretary of the Interior. Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber; who has opposed some off-reservation land-into-trust acquisitions; former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, who remains popular among Alaska Natives; and Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado were cited by the Associated Press.

Dirk Kempthorne, who opposed off-reservation gaming as governor of Idaho, currently holds the post. He has made law enforcement in Indian Country a priority but land-into-trust has become a more difficult process since he came on board.

In January, the BIA adopted a "guidance memorandum" that raises the bar for off-reservation land-into-trust applications. Former assistant secretary Carl Artman, who resigned in May, told Congress that Kempthorne did not play a role in developing the policy.

The memo was used to reject nearly a dozen off-reservation casino projects and two more -- both in Wisconsin -- could lose out if it stays operative at Interior. An Obama administration could rescind the policy.

Under Kempthorne, the BIA also changed the way in which off-reservation applications are reviewed in a way that downplays local support of such projects. And before he came on board, the BIA decided to reject gaming compacts that refer to land that is not yet held in trust.

Obama's transition team is already looking to reverse some of President Bush's policies and directives. "There's a lot that the president can do using his executive authority without waiting for congressional action, and I think we'll see the president do that," John Podesta, the head of the tem, said on the CBS program Face the Nation yesterday.

"I think that he feels like he has a real mandate for change," said Podesta. "We need to get off the course that the Bush administration has set."

Government Accountability Office Documents:
Strengthening the Accountability of Indian and Island Community Programs | The Office of the Special Trustee Has Implemented Several Key Trust Reforms Required by the 1994 Act, but Important Decisions about Its Future Remain | BIA’s Efforts to Impose Time Frames and Collect Better Data Should Improve the Processing of Land in Trust Applications

Relevant Documents:
NCAI Post-Election Analysis (November 2008)

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