Major trust reform bill supported by Indian Country signed into law

President Barack Obama. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

The first comprehensive trust reform bill to clear Congress in more than two decades has become law.

President Barack Obama signed H.R.812, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act, on Wednesday, the White House announced. Indian Country supports the bill due to provisions that encourage tribes to take greater control of their own 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 after the bill cleared its final hurdle in the 114th Congress on June 10.

But the Obama administration raised significant concerns. The Department of the Interior objected to a provision that addresses the structure of the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians and another that calls for the creation of an Under Secretary for Indian Affairs.

Tribes pushed back on the concerns as unfounded. H.R.812 does not mandate the end of OST -- it instead requires the Secretary of the Interior to prepare a report on the potential transfer of its duties to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies at the department.

"Submission of this information by the Secretary to Congress would serve only to inform Congress and Indian Country; it sets nothing in motion -- let alone the termination of the OST," Ernie Stensgar, who chairs the trust reform committee for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians wrote in a March 24 letter to Michael Connor, the second-in-command at Interior.

The Under Secretary isn't set in stone either, Stensgar noted. H.R.812 specifically states that Interior "may" create the position.

"Whether or not an Under Secretary position should be established, therefore, would be entirely within the discretion of the Secretary," he wrote.

The House passed H.R.812 on February 24. The Senate followed up on June 10 and it was sent to Obama on June 17.

The Indian Trust Asset Reform Act is the first major trust reform bill since the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994. That law envisioned the OST as the agency that would oversee trust reform efforts at DOI.

The agency was slow to start -- the Clinton administration limited its authority and kept its budget small as the federal government faced the historic Cobell lawsuit that was filed to address the Individual Indian Money trust. The first Special Trustee, Paul Homan, eventually resigned in protest of his lack of power.

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.

The 1994 law envisioned an eventual "sunset" of the OST, an idea supported by the National Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform -- a panel of tribal leaders and Indian law experts that was convened by the Obama administration. H.R.812 clears the path for process but ensures that DOI has options in case officials do not believe an "orderly transition" can take place within a certain amount of time.

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