Editorial: Indian Country's Ugly Baby
Wednesday, November 5, 2003

When the Bush administration in November 2001 proposed creating a new agency to handle Indian trust assets, tribal leaders rushed to keep the Bureau of Indian Affairs from certain death. Without the BIA, they argued, there was no trust responsibility.

"If it's our ugly baby, then we need to fix it," one tribal leader said.

The spirited defense befuddled the Republicans, who thought they were doing Indians a favor. "To my great surprise, the tribes are very strongly attached to the Bureau of Indian Affairs," Secretary of Interior Gale Norton would later tell a House committee.

It would take a few more months before Norton saw the light. She finally killed the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management, a monster tribal leaders labeled "Bite 'Em."

But two years later, Indian Country is finding out that BITAM is still alive and kicking. It's only gotten larger, by eating up programs, resources and funding that used to belong to the ugly baby.

The chomping started with the transfer of several major trust duties to Ross Swimmer, who was promised the BITAM job but given an even bigger one as head of the Office of Special Trustee when it fell through. Before anyone had a chance to object, records, probate, data cleanup and trust systems were stripped from the BIA and given to OST.

A short while later, the BIA lost control of the appraisal program. Instead of resolving concerns about the undervaluation of Indian lands, the administration gave everything to OST.

It was a largely cosmetic change, because the money for the program still comes out of the BIA budget. To be more accurate, it's coming from tribal priority allocation funds. Tribes are supposed to decide how this money is spent, not government officials.

All of this is apparently not enough. Although the Appraisal Foundation, a national standards organization, gave the Indian employees who perform appraisals a good review, the administration has decided to consolidate them in a new unit that doesn't have a trust responsibility.

The consequences are significant. First is the loss of Indian preference. Thanks to two legal memos issued in recent months, the Department of Interior has fewer incentives to hire qualified American Indians and Alaska Natives even though it's the law.

Second, the proposal undermines self-governance and self-determination. Department officials are unwilling to compact and contract for programs outside the BIA. The removal of more and more Indian programs to OST and elsewhere prevents tribes from exercising greater control of their affairs.

Finally, consolidation does little to help the people who need the services most: individual Indians. Tribes have the resources to hire private appraisers, and many do. Individuals who depend on their trust land for their livelihood, don't. A department entity will only keep economic development out of reach for the nation's poorest citizens.

Like the ongoing reorganization of the BIA and the expansion of the OST, the consolidation is another quick fix to an old problem. These proposals give the impression that the administration is doing something, but it's only busy work. Moving boxes around doesn't solve anything.

Real issues, meanwhile, go unresolved. For decades, Navajo landowners have received a pittance for use of their land. Yet when a court report finally documents these failings, department officials refuse to address them.

How far this effort goes is anyone's guess. With the White House conspiring with Congress to undermine the trust relationship, tribal leaders mght soon find themselves attached to an agency that no longer serves them. Gale Norton won't be surprised then.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Office of Special Trustee -

Related Stories:
DOI positions losing Indian preference status (11/5)
Self-governance tribes fear impact of reorganization (10/09)
Consolidation plan advances at Interior (9/16)

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