Tribal leaders planning assault on Bush proposa
Facebook Twitter Email

Upset with the Bush administration's plan to reorganize the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal leaders throughout the nation are mobilizing to oppose what they are calling a reversal of years of Indian self-determination.

Immediate face-to-face meetings with top government officials, Congressional hearings and possible court intervention are among the steps being taken to head off a proposal announced by Secretary of Interior Norton yesterday. To strip the BIA of its core trust responsibilities and hand them off to an entirely new agency is to cast into doubt more than 100 years of tribal-federal policy, they said.

"This strikes at the root of the government-to-government relationship our communities and our people have had with the U.S. government," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington. "Their proposal to completely revamp the whole system . . . and completely change the legal relationship between the tribes and the department -- and it's all without consultation -- is just disastrous."

"We are very concerned about it and a bit disturbed on how it is unfolding," he added.

Allen was one of a number of tribal leaders who have reacted to the Bush plan with surprise, scorn and contempt. Although some said they became aware of the reorganization late Wednesday night, just as Norton was outlining it to a federal judge, they said weren't given any details until yesterday.

But what Norton offered was too vague, too incomplete and raises more questions than answers, they said. Officials of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest and oldest tribal organization, were particularly upset that the plan was developed without first talking to tribal leaders.

"Of great concern is the wholesale lack of consultation on the part of the Department of Interior on this move," NCAI said in a statement.

Faced with a crunch for time, NCAI said it would rearrange its upcoming annual convention to address the many questions tribes have already raised. Officials also said they would closely watch the court proceedings in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) lawsuit that sparked the proposal.

Under the plan, the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM) would oversee the daily management of the tribal and individual trust. An Assistant Secretary and a director would handle about 1,400 tribal accounts and 300,000 IIM accounts that represent nearly $3.1 billion in assets from oil, gas, timber, grazing and other natural resource royalties.

Creating the new Assistant Secretary position wouldn't be difficult, said Kevin Gover, a former political appointee who stepped down from his Interior post in January. Although the Senate would have to confirm whomever is chosen to head the BITAM, the department doesn't need Congressional approval to make the change, he said.

But some tribal leaders are insisting Congress authorize the new post. Doing so would ensure that the department properly consults with interested stakeholders, they said.

Additionally, tribal leaders are voicing concerns about the 11,000 employees of the BIA and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. About 80 to 90 percent of the employees are of American Indian or Alaska Native heritage, according to department statistics.

To protect this labor force and ensure Native Americans are hired, retained and promoted to leadership roles, Indian preference is a requirement, said tribal leaders. Currently, only the BIA and the Indian Health Service are affected by the policy and tribal leaders plan on asking Congress to ensure it is in place at BITAM.

With no time frames set forth by Norton, the first goal for NCAI and tribal leaders is to meet with top officials, they said. Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb will address NCAI's conference, which takes place in Spokane, Washington, from November 25-30.

A federal judge overseeing trust reform had scheduled a status hearing on November 30 in Washington, D.C. Late last night, Norton's lawyers submitted their defense to contempt charges U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth appears ready to lay on her and other officials.

In the filing, the attorneys also argued against placing the system into a receivership. BITAM is the responsible alternative, the government has asserted.

Related Documents:
Graphic: New Indian Agency | PDF: Notice of Reorganization | PDF: Griles Declaration | PDF: McCaleb Memo | PDF: Norton Memo | Text: EDS Report | Text: EDS Letter to Griles

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

Related Stories:
Developing: BIA stripped of trust duties (11/15)
Interior might need year on new agency (11/15)
Gover: Indian Country now 'weaker' (11/15)
Trust fund security document filed (11/14)
Interior mum on trust fund report (11/13)
Norton hires own defense lawyer (11/9)
Norton told to appoint trust fund receiver (11/7)
Griles taking lead on trust reform (11/5)
Norton's defense off to a 'bad start' (11/2)
Judge ready to hold Norton in contempt (10/31)
Interior promises trust fund defense (10/31)
Judge: Norton's actions 'contemptuous' (10/30)
Trust fund defense team scrapped (10/30)
Action on Norton urged 'on all fronts' (10/29)
Norton views broken trust fund system (10/29)