Tribal leaders worried about BIA consultation
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If Secretary of Interior Gale Norton doesn't attend an upcoming consultation session to discuss a proposed overhaul of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, her absence will only worsen already shaky prospects for successful dialogue on the issue, tribal leaders said on Monday.

"It wouldn't be good for her not to show up," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington. "I can't underscore enough the importance of the first meeting to get the government-to-government relationship off on a good footing."

Allen is one of a large group of tribal leaders who plan to attend the meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on December 13. He was clearly disappointed upon learning a federal judge, acting on a government request, has rescheduled a trust fund contempt trial to start December 10, just days before the scheduled session.

"If it's left to Steven to deliver the message then that's not a good sign," said Allen, referring to Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles.

Nevertheless, Allen said tribes shouldn't back away from discussions even though he said Norton's direct participation is "crucial." He said tribes face a "challenge" to develop a suitable fix to more than 100 years of mismanagement of their trust assets.

"We can't just keep complaining about the process," he said. "We have to come up with solutions."

Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation of North Dakota and president of the National Congress of American Indians, also said Norton should make every effort to attend the session. But he said tribes would understand if her presence was required in federal court to answer charges of wrongdoing over the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust.

"Obviously, it would be totally wrong for Secretary Norton not to show up after her top two officials both indicated she would be in Albuquerque," Hall said. "I'm planning on being at the court date on December 10 but I clearly plan to be in Albuquerque as well."

Although Norton does not have to take the stand in her defense, she may end up doing so to explain how her recent actions will improve handling of the trust accounts of 300,000 American Indians. The plaintiffs representing the beneficiaries want her to take the stand, a request that wasn't immediately rejected by her defense team.

Interior spokesperson Eric Ruff said Norton would make every effort to attend next week's meeting. He wouldn't comment if the department has made alternate plans should her presence be required in court.

Today on Indianz.Com:
McCaleb doubts tribal opposition (12/4)
Trust fund report still can't be found (12/4)
GOP push may be tied to Indian preference (12/4)
Indian leader happy for contempt trial (12/4)

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

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