Norton sees opposition on trust reform
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Secretary of Interior Gale Norton was met with resistance on Tuesday night from tribal leaders who criticized recent efforts to fix the broken Indian trust.

At what was deemed a hastily called consultation session, tribes voiced numerous objections to a set of alternatives developed by their peers and government officials. They told Norton that the options offered little in terms of true reform of the management of $3.1 billion in Indian assets and 54 million acres of land.

"Trust is more than land and cash," said Alvin Windy Boy, chairman of the Chippewa-Cree Nation of Montana, "but involves responsibility."

Norton was in Bismarck, North Dakota, to give Indian Country an update on a joint federal-tribal task force. The panel, composed of 24 tribal leaders and Department of Interior representatives, was created in response to the complete rejection of the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM), a new agency that would have fragmented existing programs and services.

About the only good news Norton brought involved the shelving of that controversial proposal. "I believe the task force has developed viable alternatives so I have withdrawn BITAM," she said, drawing applause.

The approximately 200 attendees of last night's meeting found little else to praise. Tribal leaders from as far away as Alaska and New York were hearing for the first time about the work of the task force, which earlier this month identified high-level changes to the structure of the Interior.

Clifford Lyle Marshall, chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribes of California, was an outspoken critic and, earlier in the day, predicted Norton's lukewarm reception. But he also chided his tribal peers for endorsing options that accomplished the goals of BITAM.

"In other words, the task force proposals do exactly what the task force originally said they were opposed to," he said.

There was near unanimous consent on what was missing from the alternatives. "We will need an independent oversight committee," said Arthur J. Lake, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents of Alaska.

Others said they couldn't even provide constructive responses because of an aggressive schedule placed before Indian Country. Tim Martin, a member of the task force and the executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), said tribes in his region haven't been able to review the latest developments.

"We haven't involved the regional representatives," chimed in Windy Boy, also a task force member.

Taylor McKenzie, vice president of the Navajo Nation, pressed Norton to support a Cabinet post for Indian programs. The task force rejected the idea, citing political obstacles, but he noted President Bush's call for a new department to protect America from terrorism.

"We, as tribal nations, are also defending our homeland and I would urge you not to quickly brush aside a proposed Department of Indian Affairs," he told Norton.

Norton said the goal of the entire effort was consensus. "I'm dedicated to common ground and common understanding," she said.

Like other department officials, including Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, she added that the existing situation was not acceptable. "The current system needs to be improved," she said.

"We want to improve on the status quo," McCaleb noted earlier in the day.

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

Related Stories:
Tribes complain BITAM still alive (6/18)
Trust fund monitor accused of bias (6/18)
Task force met with skepticism (6/17)
Norton pressed on Indian funds (6/14)
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)