Tribes demand independent trust fund oversight
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Already facing doubts in Indian Country, the joint federal-tribal task force on trust reform will confront a key issue in the upcoming weeks that could potentially derail the closely watched effort.

Many tribal leaders consider independent oversight of the Department of Interior a critical component of reform. Ensuring accountability from Washington, D.C., down to the reservation level has been one of their key goals in order to ensure proper handling of $3.1 billion in trust funds and 54 million acres of land.

"Trust management of this kind will be a climb and the U.S. government must be held to their fiduciary responsibility," Arthur J. Lake, an Alaska Native leader, told Secretary Gale Norton on Tuesday night.

But the Bush administration has balked at the tribes' demand. At a three-day meeting in North Dakota last week, a working group of department officials endorsed to the creation of an advisory board but drew the line at an independent watchdog.

"An outside regulatory function is not acceptable," the workgroup proposed.

The anti-oversight stance is not set in stone, according to participants in the talks. Rather, the department's position will be fleshed out during the next few weeks as the task force identifies whether legislative action is needed, they said.

"It's too premature at this point to call it a deal breaker but I do believe that tribes feel it is an essential component," said Ron Allen, the chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington and the task force member who tabled discussion on issue last week.

The department has traditionally resisted oversight, regardless of which political party is in charge. The Clinton administration vehemently objected to the creation of the Office of the Special Trustee on the guises that Indian Country would be harmed.

Current opposition stems from constitutional concerns, according to participants. Since Indian trust is unique within the federal bureaucracy, some -- including tribal leaders -- question whether an outside entity would affect the government-to-government relationship.

Supporters point out the historic failure of that very relationship. Tribes and 300,000 American Indians are still without a full accounting of their funds, the most basic duty of any trustee, they remind others.

At Norton's consultation session on Tuesday, there was near unanimity in the call for and independent reporting and enforcement mechanism. Tribes who didn't take part in the work of the task force repeatedly urged their peers, and the department, not to lose sight of the issue.

Greg Bourland, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, was one of few tribal leaders who didn't outright question the reorganization proposals the panel has identified. But he predicated his support on on "segregated" oversight.

Also insistent are the plaintiffs in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) lawsuit. Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney who represents 300,000 Indian beneficiaries, said history has shown the department has trouble policing itself.

"[Federal officials] have for years not listened to a court when a court has ordered them to take action," said Harper, who was at last week's meeting. "Who is going to expect they will listen to an advisory commission?"

"They want a totally unaccountable system," he added.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee on June 26 will hear from the task force although debate on independent oversight won't be resolved by then, according to participants in the talks.

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

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