Trust reform and land-into-trust are being identified as
two of the biggest Indian issues that await president-elect
The first African-American president in history takes office
on January 20, 2009. With the inauguration rapidly approaching, the Government
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
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
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
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
"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
Related Stories:Nighthorse Campbell could have voted for Obama
(11/10) Jodi Rave: NCAI excited
about Obama transition
mention of tribes on Obama transition website
(11/7) Ernie Stevens: Optimism and change in Washington
(11/7) Navajo voters excited about
election of Obama
(11/7) Editorial: A
shining moment in American history
(11/7) Indian vote shows mixed results in key states
(11/6)Oklahoma tribes hopeful after
(11/6) Navajo voters hail
election of Obama as historic
(11/6) Young Indian voter counts on Obama for change
(11/6) Sen. Obama launches White House
(11/6) Sen. Obama wins
historic presidential election