Tribes pressure President Obama to sign trust reform legislation

The American India Records Repository, located in Lenexa, Kansas, is part of the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, and houses millions of Indian records. Photo from OST / Facebook

President Barack Obama is facing pressure from Indian Country to sign a trust reform bill that his administration does not support.

Tribes cheered when H.R.812, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act, overcame its final hurdle in the 114th Congress last week. The bill encourages tribes to take greater control of their trust funds and trust assets.

“For years, we’ve been asking to manage our own assets and make our own decisions about our resources so we can do what’s best for our tribe, Chief Allan, the chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho, said in a press release. "Today we can say we finally have the flexibility to make choices based on what is best for our tribe."

The bill also marks the first time a comprehensive trust reform package has cleared Congress since the early 1990s. It makes significant changes to the way Interior Department, the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians to the Bureau of Indian Affairs handle their fiduciary obligations to tribes and individual Indians.

Leaders of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho. From left, seated: Margaret SiJohn, Leta Campbell, Cynthia Williams and Charlotte Nilson. Standing, from left: Donald Sczenski, secretary-treasurer; Chief Allan, chairman; and Ernie Stensgar, vice-chairman. Photo from Facebook

“This is the first Indian policy bill to pass this Congress and many tribal leaders are calling it the most significant piece of trust reform legislation to come out of Congress in two decades,” Fawn Sharp, the president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, which represents 57 tribes in six Northwest states, said in a press release.

But while ATNI, the National Congress of American Indians and other inter-tribal organizations support the measure, the Obama administration has raised major concerns about two key provisions. One would require the Interior Department to dismantle the Office of the Special Trustee within two years after completing a report on the agency.

Tribes point out that the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994, the last significant trust reform law, envisioned such a process. The National Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform -- a panel of tribal leaders and Indian law experts that was convened by the administration -- also called on Interior to consider a "sunset' of the agency but the department did not accept that recommendation.

"The termination of OST would constitute a major restructuring of the department," Christopher P. Salotti of Interior's Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs wrote in a letter to lawmakers following a hearing in April 2015. "As was made clear at the hearing, the department does not support the termination of OST; for the foreseeable future, OST will need to remain as an integral part of the Indian trust system."

Special Trustee Vince Logan speaks at the National Congress of American Indians annual convention in San Diego, California, on October 22, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

A second key provision requires Interior to establish a new Under Secretary for Indian Affairs to oversee all Indian programs at the department. While tribes argue that the position would elevate their issues within the department, the administration is questioning whether it will benefit Indian Country.

"As written, H.R. 812 lacks sufficient detail to ensure that individual beneficiaries and tribes will retain the level of care they currently receive under the department's trust management structure," Salotti wrote in the letter.

The letter tracks concerns cited in testimony that the administration has given on H.R.812 and H.R.409, a similar bill that did not clear the prior session of Congress. But the White House Office of Management and Budget never issued a statement of administration policy as the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act advanced in the House and the Senate this year.

"Through this effort, tribes will decide what the trust relationship looks like today and into the future," National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby said on the eve of the House vote in February.

With tribal leaders at his side, President Barack Obama signed H.R.205, the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership (HEARTH) Act of 2012, into law on July 30, 2012. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

The American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 established the Office of the Special Trustee in response to long-standing complains about the mishandling of tribal and individual Indian trust funds and trust assets. The agency was slow to start -- the Clinton administration limited its authority and kept its budget small as it faced the historic Cobell lawsuit that was filed to address the Individual Indian Money trust. The first Special Trustee, Paul Homan, resigned in protest of his lack of power.

But the agency quickly grew in size and mission during the Bush administration and tribal leaders complained that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was being punished by the dramatic expansion. The BIA in fact saw its first significant budget cuts during those years. The second Special Trustee, Tom Slonaker, was forced to resign after he expressed views that favored the Cobell plaintiffs.

The Bush administration then brought Ross Swimmer, a former chief of the Cherokee Nation, on board as Special Trustee. Although he was the first tribal citizen to hold the post, he frequently clashed with tribal leaders, many of whom remembered him with disdain as a result of his tenure at the BIA during the Reagan era.

When President Obama took office in January 2009, Swimmer made desperate pleas to stay at OST, at least through a transition period. But he was told to leave and the position remained vacant for three more years until Vince Logan, a member of the Osage Nation, was nominated as Special Trustee in September 2012. He was finally confirmed by the Senate in June 2014, ending a five-year vacancy in leadership at the agency.

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