Indian Country skeptical of 'sham' consultation
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Stung with growing criticism over a plan to strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its trust responsibilities, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on Tuesday promised to work with Indian Country on a reorganization that will bring about dramatic changes for more than 500 tribes and a million American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Acknowledging complaints over the lack of details her administration has provided to Indian Country and Congress, Norton said the "top-to-bottom" overhaul is still being developed. Her top officials including Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb will start working with tribal leaders immediately to flesh out the plan, she said.

"One of the things that has been difficult for people to understand is: 'Why haven't you told us all of the details about it?'" Norton said during a brief appearance on the radio program Native America Calling.

"The reason we haven't," she continued, "is because we are consulting about how exactly this should be put into effect, how our proposal will work in the real world."

Griles, who has told a federal judge in a sworn testimonial that he is in charge of trust reform, and McCaleb will start the formal consultation process with tribal leaders next week, Norton added. Both are slated to discuss the project at the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in Spokane, Washington.

Heated debate is expected as tribal leaders will get their first face-to-face meeting with the administration since learning about the reorganization. Although an exclusive group of tribal leaders gained awareness of the new Bureau of Trust Assets Management at a conference last Wednesday just hours before Norton submitted the proposal to a federal court, others have only heard about it through news reports and word of mouth.

Such a "midnight hour" move has left a foul taste throughout Indian Country, said Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota. Along with 15 large land-base tribes in the Great Plains, he has denounced the plan as one crafted without tribal input.

"This administration just doesn't understand tribal government consultation," said Hall after listening to Norton's radio appearance. "What tribes has she consulted with? We can't even get a meeting with her."

"There's huge opposition to this in Indian Country," he added, calling Norton's effort to inform tribal leaders through conferences instead of formal meetings a "sham."

Although her department has promised to hold nationwide sessions, Norton has yet to set forth a concrete schedule. A consulting company she paid nearly $3 million to assess trust reform has said the Interior would need a year to consult with tribes, develop a structure and set up a transition, a timetable that might not fly with a federal judge who has blasted the government for stalling a fix.

But Norton insisted yesterday her proposal was not another delay tactic. "We are absolutely not planning on waiting two or three years," she said, pointing to the appointment of former Assistant Secretary Ross O. Swimmer to head up the transition effort.

Tribal leaders, however, have been unanimous in their view that the process should not be fast-tracked. Bringing in Swimmer, who was a former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is merely an attempt to "grease" the proposal through the channels, said Hall, but the effort "won't fly."

Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington and an executive of NCAI, agreed. "This is such a momentous reorganization proposal that they need to consult all of Indian Country and go into each of the regions and be much more methodical . . . to assure that they have thoroughly consulted with the tribal leadership," he said.

"A year?" doubted Allen. "Not even close."

Just as tribal leaders start to get into the proposal, a federal court will be weighing in on it. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth of the District of Columbia has scheduled a status hearing November 30 over the mismanagement of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust, to which Norton's proposal was a response.

Today on Indianz.Com:
BIA reorganization a focus of NCAI (11/21)

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

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