FROM THE ARCHIVE

Rift widens on trust reform negotiations

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THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2002

Efforts to correct more than a century of Indian trust mismanagement have been dealt a major "setback" because the Bush administration won't agree to needed changes, a key tribal leader said on Wednesday.

National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) President Tex Hall said talks with government officials aren't over. The tribal-federal task force on trust reform will continue, he noted.

But he said the Bush administration's recalcitrance affects a problem that has gone unsolved for 125 years: how the Department of Interior will meet its fiduciary obligations to tribes and individual Indians who own 54 million acres of land and billions of dollars in trust assets.

"I think it is a setback," Hall said of the impasse. "It's really disappointing."

At issue are a set of demands regarding management of Indian funds. Tribes insist on legislation to codify trust standards, create an independent commission to oversee and enforce the standards and implement organizational changes at the national and reservation level.

Bush officials have raised objections to the proposals, mostly on standards and oversight. They did agree to the creation of a deputy secretary to oversee Indian affairs within the Department of Interior.

Without trust guidelines and the power to enforce them, tribes cannot agree on a restructuring, according to Hall. "Any reorganization would be meaningless without standards attached to it," he said. "Our land and our minerals would not be worth a cent because they [Bush officials] want to lower that standard."

The rift widened last week after Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and other officials said the Bush administration couldn't agree with the tribal proposals. According to notes of a conference call taken by NCAI, he said the government would face additional litigation.

"[I]t will become a lawyer's paradise," Griles said. "We don't want a right created without a fundamental understanding of what is required."

The stance has worried tribal leaders and Indian advocates who fear upcoming action by the U.S. Supreme Court will limit Indian rights. At the behest of Solicitor General Ted Olson, a Bush appointee, the Justices have agreed to consider two trust cases.

Former Interior assistant secretary Kevin Gover, who was hit with a landmark breach of trust ruling affecting 500,000 American Indians, said fiduciary standards need to be enacted into law to counteract a negative decision.

"It's already in their policies," he said, referring to a department manual on trust created during the Clinton administration. "They are revealing their hypocrisy," he said of Bush officials, by opposing the trust legislation.

Tribal leaders are drafting a letter to Secretary Gale Norton to withdraw from discussions on the disputed issues. Areas such as fractionation of Indian lands, historical accountings of Indian funds, improvement of computer systems and budget are expected to continue to be discussed by the task force.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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