Effort targets 'deviations' prized by tribes
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MONDAY, MARCH 11, 2002

Tribe and reservation specific services could see major changes as Secretary of Interior Gale Norton moves to standardize the way her department manages the Indian trust fund.

With the help of a consulting firm, the department will be able to describe how it handles the assets of more than 500 tribes and 300,000 American Indians. EDS Corporation has been awarded a $2.5 million contract to develop a first-ever "business model" of trust operations.

The goal is to ensure the department is meeting its obligations to Indian Country. Everyone -- tribal leaders, lawmakers, federal courts and Norton herself -- admits there are numerous shortcomings.

But the effort is also part of a greater push to promote consistency at Bureau of Indian Affairs agencies and field offices nationwide. Norton has frequently described the BIA as "decentralized," a characterization that would change now that EDS Corporation, a company with primary experience in information technology, has been asked to "assess the extent to which regional deviations . . . are warranted" and to make "recommendations for bringing activities in conformance," according to an internal document.

Combined with another directive to identify the trust functions that can be handed to third-party contractors, the BIA faces an uncertain future in the hands of the Bush administration. The specialized services tribes and Indian landowners would hope to find at their local office face elimination altogether under these initiatives.

The way department officials tell it, regional variances in trust operations have hindered true reform. The failure of a $40 million trust accounting system aimed at replacing local methods has been traced to differing practices among the 12 regions of the BIA.

To tribal leaders, the deviations -- which are based on treaties, court decisions, executive orders and federal, tribal and local statutes -- tie them to the BIA and have led them to reject Norton's proposal to create a separate trust agency. Tribes typically work hand-in-hand with their local office and to them, reform is not about what bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., say but about their input.

"Indian leadership is working with the BIA in concert," said National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall in court testimony last month. "We have a pretty good idea how to change it."

Some regional and local BIA officials privately agree. Stung by the delays associated with the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS), they are worried future efforts to standardize will collapse.

"If it's not working, tell us it's not working," said one official, recounting the TAAMS push. "Don't waste my time telling me what's not working."

As part of its contract, EDS will examine trust activities at all 12 BIA regions and 87 agencies to gain a "common understanding of differences." Any "inconsistencies" will be documented and compared to "industry trust standards" to determine whether changes are needed.

Tribal-specific functions that could change, according to an internal document, include: probate, appraisal, land surveys, land title, leasing, collections, distributions, realty, forestry, grazing and irrigation.

Relevant Links:
EDS Corporation -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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