Congress urged to act on failed trust reform
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As the debate over Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's proposed reorganization of Indian trust continues, the seven-year-old federal law which was supposed to have fixed the entire mess is being eyed for major changes.

Speaking in a unified voice, tribal leaders told the House Committee on Resources last week that the law lacks "teeth" and has not reformed the management of $3.1 billion in tribal and individual assets. Not only have its key tasks, such as providing an accounting for 300,000 American Indians, gone unfulfilled, they all said it has failed to establish the independence that Norton now says her overhaul will create.

Even the government official whose position was created by the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 agreed with tribal leaders and the trust expert on the panel. While Norton fumbled with an answer to a question posed by Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-Am.Samoa), Special Trustee Tom Slonaker was more blunt.

"I don't think the 1994 act, the way it was set up, has been terribly successful," he stated.

The late Mike Synar, Democrat from Oklahoma, spearheaded a reform initiative after he conducted his legendary investigation into trust mismanagement. Out of that effort came the infamous "Misplaced Trust" report and the law.

But years later, Synar would see how little has changed. Whether it was the departure of the first special trustee Paul Homan in early 1999 or Slonaker's refusal to certify a recent status report, the Clinton and Bush administrations have struggled with the position and the law.

For her part, Norton has attempted to give Slonaker the teeth Congress has yet to offer. Last July, she issued an executive order which allows him greater control over management and leadership, two areas he said last week were lacking.

Even here, however, there was a battle, as Slonaker did not get all he asked for, according to senior department officials and a report by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III. Also, while Slonaker has identified numerous areas of concern, he has only executed his new powers once -- to transfer the land appraisal from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to his office.

And in a move reminiscent of one of her predecessor's tactics, Norton has handed off what is supposed to be one of Slonaker's key duties to someone else. Although the reform act charges the special trustee with creating a strategic plan, she told lawmakers last week that Ross Swimmer, whose presence in the administration is widely opposed by tribes, was taking on the task.

So not surprisingly, tribal leaders want Congress to step in and take action. First on their wishlist is to stop the creation of the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM) and second is to implement meaningful reforms.

"You need additional legislation," said Ivan Makil, President of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Tribe of Arizona. Makil is also a member of an independent advisory council created by the act that he says the department has totally ignored.

"We are in serious trouble," added Charles Tillman, Chairman of the Osage Nation and the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association. "If it's our ugly baby, then we need to fix it."

Just how lawmakers are going to go about doing that is uncertain but a common theme echoed by members on both sides of the aisle was their willingness to make the necessary changes. They also paid particular attention when Donald Gray, an attorney with experience in trust management, said the government was at an "historic point" in Indian policy.

"The judge is begging the Congress to offer a solution," he said, referring to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. "Congress can implement and solve this problem."

Relevant Documents:
American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 | PDF: Misplaced Trust

Get Written Hearing Testimony:
House Committee on Resources (2/6)

Relevant Links:
House Resources Committee -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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