Special Trustee Vince Logan a no-show at Senate panel's hearing

Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, at table, was the sole witness from the Obama administration at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on July 8, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

Indian Affairs Committee takes up trust reform
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee heard testimony on trust modernization on Wednesday in an attempt to address a key issue in Indian Country.

Tribes are ready to take more control of their lands and trust assets, said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee. The federal government is holding them back, he asserted.

“It’s time that we take a new look at the status quo by breaking free from old mindsets and burdensome processes, and finding a path forward together,” Barrasso said in his opening remarks. “For far too long, Indian lands have been tied up in bureaucratic red tape that hinders tribes’ sovereignty over their land and ability to lead their people into a prosperous 21st century.”

But the hearing was missing a major player from the Interior Department. Vince Logan, the head of the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, bowed out at the last minute, Barrasso said.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Indian Affairs Committee Oversight Hearing on "A Path Forward: Trust Modernization and Reform for Indian Lands"

“I think this underscores some of the questions we will hear today about whether the Office of the Special Trustee has outlived its purpose,” said Barrasso, who called Logan’s absence “unacceptable.”

Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, represented the Obama administration in Logan’s absence. He defended the need for the Office of the Special Trustee, pushing back on criticism of that agency's purpose.

"From our perspective here, there's nothing broken that needs to be fixed," Washburn told the committee.

Some tribes and lawmakers want to eliminate the Office of the Special Trustee and transfer its duties back to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Washburn didn't think that was a good idea.

Vince Logan, the Special Trustee for American Indians. Photo from Native Legal Update

"Jamming these two agencies together is not the magical solution," Washburn said. "We are comfortable with the situation the way it is."

But one area Washburn where expressed discomfort was the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar. In the 2009 case, the justices held that the BIA can only place land in trust for tribes that were "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act.

Washburn said the ruling has been unfair to tribes and the federal government. “Overall, what that means is that it just slows us down tremendously," he testified. "It's been a horrible burden."

Brenda Lintinger, the secretary of the United South and Eastern Tribes, and a council member from the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, also pushed for a Carcieri fix. She added that the current trust relationship is outdated and disrespectful to tribes.

Vince Logan was removed from the witness list for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing. Photo by Andrew Bahl / Twitter

“The current trust model is a remnant of an era and mindset that has no place in current nation-to-nation relations, as it is based on two deeply flawed and paternalistic assumptions that tribes are incompetent to handle their own affairs and that tribal nations would eventually disappear,” Lintinger said. “Indian Country has proven both of these relationships wrong time and time again.”

Litinger and Ernie Stensgar, the vice chairman of the Couer d'Alene Tribe of Idaho, both expressed support for S.383, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act. The bill, introduced by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), helps tribes gain greater control of their trust assets.

“This bill would be a step forward and would allow us to control how our trust assets are managed,” Stensgar told the committee. He said the ability “give tribes and individuals the opportunity to gain appraisals without any paternalistic authorization” would be a benefit for Indian Country.

“This would allow tribes to look at their own destiny,” Stensgar said.

Crapo also touted the legislation as a way to fix what he calls inefficient and inappropriate federal policy.

“For too long federal policy has been overly paternalistic and burdensome which has limited opportunities for Native people. We are long overdue when it comes to trust asset management,” Crapo said. “The bill would allow tribes to submit long term management plans for tribal resources to promote sustainability and tribal self determination … and the Secretary of the Interior would be authorized to approve those proposals.”

Crapo introduced the bill in February but it has not yet been taken up by committee.

Committee Notice:
Oversight Hearing on "A Path Forward: Trust Modernization and Reform for Indian Lands" (July 8, 2015)

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