Bush proposal to take 'unclaimed' Indian land
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The Bush administration has drafted legislation to take "unclaimed" land belonging to individual Indian beneficiaries whom the Department of Interior cannot locate.

In an effort to reduce the complex division of the trust land base and reduce management boondoggles, Secretary Gale Norton can claim "abandoned" Indian property under the bill. Although a key duty of a trustee is to keep current information about beneficiaries, the proposal would allow the government to skirt this requirement.

For example, Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders who don't respond to a public notice of unclaimed land would lose their rights. But Norton can forego an announcement if the department believes the land is worth less than $50, according to a provision in the draft.

The bill places the burden on beneficiaries despite the fact that in some cases, the department doesn't have a full name, address or other key data for land owners. In quarterly reports to a federal court overseeing the debacle, officials admit they will never be able to locate every individual Indian.

"It is unrealistic to assume that, at any given time, there would be zero account holders whose whereabouts are unknown given the volume of accounts under management," the most recent report stated.

At least 63,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives who have an interest in 11 million acres of land would be affected by the proposal. Additional owners are also impacted due to the increased fractionation of the Indian estate.

The proposal is still in the early stages of development but at a meeting today in Washington, D.C., department officials plan to float the idea as an amendment to a bill pending in Congress. Copies have already been distributed to tribal leaders and Indian advocates.

Keith Harper, an attorney for the non-profit Native American Rights Fund, called the bill a disaster. His group represents 500,000 American Indians whose billion-dollar trust is at the heart of the largest class action in government history.

"This is unconstitutional on its face," he said. "This is the most clear demonstration of bad faith yet."

A department spokesperson could not comment on the draft. "I don't know anything about it," said Dan DuBray. He noted that land management issues will be addressed at the meeting of the trust reform task force.

Fractionation results when Indian owners pass on property to their descendants. The land gets divided up among dozens and dozens of heirs, increasing the cost and management of IIM accounts.

Efforts to manage the problem, however, have not been successful. Indian beneficiaries have gone all the way to the Supreme Court to protest the unconstitutional taking of their land. They secured two key victories that forced the government to scrap land laws.

The issue is touchy because it reminds some of a destructive Indian policy. Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb in January addressed the issue with tribal leaders and said he doesn't want to "terminate" Indian rights.

"I used the t-word and I wish I hadn't," he said. "That's not what I'm advocating."

Under a Bureau of Indian Affairs program to reduce fractionation, Indian owners can voluntarily have their land transferred to a tribe. But their IIM accounts are closed and, under the Bush administration's historical accounting plan, these owners are not a top priority.

Indian leaders already voiced opposition to another trust reform bill designed to address the same issue. The legislation, S.1340, limits Indian allotments to tribal members, leading to fears of a reduction in trust holdings. Today's meeting will discuss possible amendments.

Adding to the tension is a growing sentiment that the views of individual Indians are often overlooked in favor of tribal leaders who might not share the same priorities. In another court report, Larry Scrivner of the BIA's Office of Trust Responsibilities, said "internal problems are being created between the Indian tribe and the individual owners" by land fractionation programs "and may be detrimental to the individual Indian owners."

"I don't think anyone has asked the IIM beneficiaries," said Paul Homan, a former Interior official who was tapped to reform the trust but left after his powers were limited by the Clinton administration.

"The only people that are representing them today in the federal government seems to be Judge [Royce] Lamberth," he added, referring to the federal judge overseeing the IIM lawsuit.

Relevant Documents:
Draft of Unclaimed Property Proposal | S.1340: A bill to amend the Indian Land Consolidation Act

Related Stories:
Rift widens on trust reform negotiations (9/12)
Tribes scrap talks on trust standards (9/11)
Tribal leaders debate trust reform bill (5/23)
McCaleb gets too close to termination (1/29)
Interior moving to close trust fund accounts (1/25)