FROM THE ARCHIVE

Monitor's 'only hope' seen as termination

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MONDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 2002

The court official appointed to watch over the Department of Interior unleashed some of his boldest and far-reaching criticism on Friday, questioning whether true trust reform can occur under existing conditions.

In two reports released simultaneously, court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III blasts every major initiative Secretary Gale Norton has undertaken in recent months. From the creation of a new office to provide an historical accounting to Indian beneficiaries to the proposed reorganization of trust duties, no topic is left unturned.

But what sets apart the fifth and sixth reports from Kieffer's previous offerings is not necessarily their broad scope. Rather, it's the conclusion that the Bush administration has no choice but to strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its core obligations to Indian Country -- even if tribes object.

"However controversial the reorganization, due in part to the Indian Tribes' concern for the manner in which the planning began without consultation with them and the impact on their government-to-government relations of taking the trust function away from BIA, the status quo cannot be maintained," Kieffer writes. "The reorganization must be carried out – by someone."

Creating a new organization is the government's "only hope" of meaningful reform, he continues. "That organization should be permanent and not returned to the BIA or other agency within DOI," he concludes.

Kieffer's reports came as the department was wrapping up another heated session with tribes and Native Americans over the proposed Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM). The seventh meeting held so far, attendees again spoke with one voice to oppose an agency Norton herself said won't exist even if it is implemented.

"There is a misconception that BITAM somehow sets up an entirely separate organization that has entirely separate funding," Norton told an audience of about 200, "and that is not the case."

Tribal leaders, nonetheless, were insistent that the only reason they agreed to spend a weekend with Norton, at her invitation, was to oppose the agency, in whatever form it is delivered. "We're going to kill BITAM," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington.

"We want you to understand very clearly why it's a bad idea," he told Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb.

In their attempt to derail BITAM, tribal leaders so far have presented a dozen alternatives. With the exception of one to set up a Department of Indian Affairs, an idea advanced by the Oglala Lakota Tribe of South Dakota, and another to create an independent trust agency, a concept supported by a tribal leader's advisory committee, all keep trust duties within BIA, where tribes feel they belong.

"When you dismantle the BIA, it could lead to termination," said National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall in an interview. "When you use that t-word, that's fighting words."

Hall said that every tribe wants trust reform to occur, a sentiment expressed a dozen times over at Friday's gathering. But a key question lingered in the minds of not just tribal leaders but department officials, who said the opinions of Kieffer, and the federal judge who appointed him, weigh heavily in the debate.

"If the court acts upon creating a receivership for all these trust functions," said McCaleb during an interview, "all these consultations are a moot point."

When U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth might take action is not yet known, as he is still holding his contempt trial, the outcome of which may point to a receiver. "I'm not presuming on that except to presume that he's running out of patience," McCaleb, a federal defendant, said.

Kieffer, however, recommends that Lamberth pay attention to the consultation process and to Congressional hearings on trust reform before acting. Just when the sessions will end is up in the air, as four four more meetings are planned in the next several weeks.

As for Congress, the House Resources Committee is holding a hearing Wednesday to get a status update. Norton will testify, along with other tribal leaders who have been among the loudest critics of the administration's latest moves.

Get the Reports:
5th: Historical Accounting | 6th: 8th Quarterly Report

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://130.94.214.68/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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