Task force faces tough sell on trust reform
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MONDAY, JUNE 17, 2002

A joint federal-tribal task force on trust reform was greeted with skepticism last week by listeners of a radio program who questioned whether the Department of Interior can be trusted to correct its historical mismanagement of Indian funds.

Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, and Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles appeared on Friday's edition of Native America Calling to give Indian Country an update on efforts to fix the broken trust system. The task force, composed of 24 tribal leaders and department representatives, spent the last six months hammering out alternatives to the now-scrapped Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM).

"I think we've come a long way," said Hall, one of the panel's co-chairs, from Bismarck, North Dakota, where the group met for three days last week.

But callers to the program voiced doubts about the attempt to bring accountability to the management of $3.1 billion in tribal and individual funds and 54 million acres of trust land. The task force has identified several high-level changes to the department's existing structure in hopes of improving services to tribes, American Indians and Alaska Natives.

"I'm not interested in organizing because nothing's going to change," responded Myrna Youngbear to the proposed reorganization.

Several callers echoed the sentiments of Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) class action which represents 300,000 American Indians. The lawsuit, filed six years ago, spurred numerous promises to fix the system but to date has produced little concrete gains.

"We all have to remind ourselves that the government has failed, fatally, on the management of our trust assets," Cobell said, also from Bismarck.

Cobell has asked a federal judge to appoint a temporary receiver who will "take charge" of the IIM trust. She said the overseer could rehabilitate the system at the same time the task force advances its proposals.

"We feel that the Department of Interior cannot perform trust reform within itself," she said.

The department opposes additional judicial oversight of the IIM and insists meaningful improvements can occur. "We are working diligently to assure that this generation, and all future generations, in Indian Country," said Griles, who also serves as a task force co-chair, "will get the services they should receive and should have received."

Listeners weren't convinced and sided with Cobell's complaints. Larry, calling from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, said there was no reason to have faith the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has historically managed trust assets, or the department.

"I think it's appalling to see that the BIA and the Department of Interior narrow their trust responsibility down to funds and land management," he said. "I think that there's an overall trust responsibility that they have relinquished over the years."

The comments received give some indication to the difficulty the task force faces as it seeks national consensus on reform. The group has met privately and although the members were chosen to represent a broad spectrum of participants, key segments of Indian Country -- such as as the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association (ITMA) and individual Indians, including the Cobell plaintiffs -- were denied a vote on the issues discussed.

The department has ultimate veto authority over the group's work, although Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb said in an interview with Indianz.Com that the power hasn't been exercised yet. "We've had a lot of spirited discussions and we'll have a lot more when this deal is hammered out in great detail," he said, "but we've always been able to resolve our differences."

Secretary Gale Norton will get a better idea of how tribal members and account holders feel when she goes to Bismarck to hold a consultation session on reorganization. The public is invited for the mid-evening session, which takes place from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Bismarck Convention Center.

Relevant Documents:
Task Force Full Report | Task Force Federal Register Notice | Task Force Organizational Charts Only | Tentative Schedule of Upcoming Events | Task Force Members | TRIBAL LEADERS / DOI TRUST REFORM TASK FORCE UPDATE

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

Related Stories:
Trust reform documents published (6/13)
Norton testifies on trust fund (6/13)
Tribes endorse trust reform proposals (6/5)
Trust reform set for round two (5/30)