Tribes increase call for trust fund commission
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Tribal leaders on Wednesday insisted on the creation of an independent federal commission to ensure proper management of billions of dollars in Indian trust funds.

There is unanimous support for oversight outside of the Department of Interior, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee was told. The historical mishandling of trust assets underscores the need for the government to be held accountable, tribal leaders said.

"We cannot expect that the fox can oversee the hen house," said Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe of California.

Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, noted that the independent body is the "number one priority" of tribes. An entity with "real teeth" should develop trust standards and ensure department compliance, he testified.

"There simply has to be the resources in order for this to actually happen," he said.

The remarks came as lawmakers received an update on the progress of a joint federal-tribal task force on trust reform. The group, composed of 24 tribal leaders and several Interior representatives, received praise for its efforts so far.

"We finally have the potential to develop solutions that will work," said committee chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

While Inouye and other committee members expressed satisfaction, they noted some key issues were unsettled. "We oughta really focus on solving the problem," said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.).

"I'm afraid we are getting a little diverted into the structure as opposed to the issues," he said.

Hall laid out the duties of an independent commission, including the ability to set trust standards, perform audits, sanction the department for non-compliance, monitor performance and report on the trust fund budget. The entity should be fully staffed, he said, including representatives from Indian Country.

"How many?" Hall asked. "Enough to do the job."

Department officials were non-committal on the issue. "We too want to support an independent commission," said Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles. "We are trying to define that."

During a task force meeting earlier this month, the department balked at outside control. Officials were worried about the powers a commission would have over the Interior and raised constitutional questions.

The tribes and the department were meeting yesterday afternoon to discuss the issue and others. Committee vice-chairman Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) urged the parties to work quickly because of upcoming time constraints.

"We only have about a month to work on this," he said, noting an upcoming Congressional recess.

The Senate committee has scheduled a July 30 hearing for another trust reform update. Inouye said he wanted the task force to finalize its choice for department reorganization by that date.

Relevant Documents:
Written Witness Testimony (6/26)

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

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