Norton feels 'wrath' of Indian Country
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Tribal leaders from throughout Indian Country on Thursday continued their assault on the Bush administration's controversial proposal to create a new Indian trust agency, chiding Secretary of Interior Gale Norton for hatching the plan without their input.

One by one, tribal representatives stood up in a crowded room in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, to tell Norton exactly what they thought of her proposal to strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its trust responsibilities and hand them to another entity. Ill-conceived, insulting and anti-Indian were the themes of the day as the coordinated attack was hurled at top Bush officials.

"We're simply asking to be consulted, not insulted," said Kelsey Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the country.

"Creating a new agency doesn't create reform," added Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest tribal organization.

"We don't want you to be known as just another Secretary who failed," Hall told Norton. "We want you to be known as the Secretary to work with tribes and come up with true trust reform."

With more than 80 tribes in attendance, Norton got her first taste of the unanimous opposition to the creation of the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM). First announced under the cover of darkness in mid-November, tribes mobilized quickly to denounce the plan, and then began to develop strategies aimed at stopping it.

Much like the criticism Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb and Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles encountered at NCAI's recent national convention, yesterday's session represented another rung in that effort. To prepare for the event, tribal leaders on Wednesday met to solidify their stances.

One aspect of that caucus surfaced, and prevailed, when Norton and McCaleb agreed to the establishment of a nationwide trust reform task force. To be composed of representatives from Alaska to Florida, one of the panel's first goals will be slowing down the Bush administration's "aggressive" implementation of BITAM, said tribal leaders.

But citing a need to be proactive, Norton yesterday didn't agree to pull back her consultation schedule as tribal leaders requested. In just 60 days, she hopes to hold six additional meetings to discuss the issue and gave no indication she'd change her mind.

Norton has also sought to "reprogram" $300 million in fiscal year 2002 funds for BITAM. The bulk of the money -- about $200 million -- would be taken from existing BIA funds, a request tribal leaders have roundly rejected

Armed with a letter from the highest ranking member of the Senate, tribes made significant headway on that front. Majority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has requested that no funds be transferred until consultation is complete, tribal leaders happily reported yesterday.

Norton had initially set a December 20 deadline -- the same day of her next consultation session in Minneapolis, Minnesota -- to make the switch.

After the dust settled, tribes felt they made some progress. "I'd say we are cautiously optimistic," said Hall last night.

In spite of all the contention, tribal leaders said they were committed to working with the Bush administration. Every tribal leader agrees that their trust assets, land and other resources need better management, agreed Hall.

"We agree it's gotta happen," he said, "but it's gotta happen in a true partnership. Tribes want to be actively engaged."

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

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