Norton pushes 'superior' BITAM before Congres
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Secretary of Interior Gale Norton went before skeptical members of Congressional on Wednesday to defend her controversial plan to strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its core responsibilities, once again angering tribal leaders in the process.

Testifying to the House Resources Committee, the first legislative panel to hold a hearing on the still unfolding debacle, Norton declared her proposal "superior" to nearly a dozen tribal alternatives that have been offered. More than two months after she first announced her intention to create the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM) and after seven "consultation" meetings with Indian Country, she said she stuck by her highly criticized decision.

"I still believe that our separate organization is superior and is more likely to bring needed change," Norton said. "I have not entirely closed my mind to the opinions I'm hearing from other people."

"At this point, I still do remain convinced that a separate organization would be stronger," she concluded.

To tribal leaders who just spent the weekend with Norton in hopes of developing trust and meaningful dialogue, the testimony was a great setback. Jonathan Windy Boy, President of the Council of Large Land Base Tribes, called the entire affair a "dog and pony show," underscoring doubts he had raised last week.

Added Tex Hall, President of the National Congress of American Indians: "It was disheartening to hear the Secretary's comments. It's very disheartening also to not allow the tribes to develop an alternative."

But if there was any show yesterday, it belonged to Congress, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle got their chance to grill Norton. Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah), the chairman of the committee, questioned why she asked to divert $300 million in existing funds to BITAM without first consulting with tribes.

"We wanted to move forward on our proposal," responded Norton, saying she needed to act "quickly with fairly dramatic changes."

Some members, however, weren't buying BITAM. "I really don't believe that creating a new agency for these trust accounts is the answer," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.).

"It seems to me you need to reform the existing agency and make those changes within the existing agency, not just transfer everything from hall A to hall B," he said. "I think that your approach . . . is the kind of patronistic approach that's the basic problem here."

The solution, at least for now, was for lawmakers to step in, tribal leaders unanimously told the panel. "I am here to ask Congress to flex its authority," said Charles Tillman, Chairman of the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association.

"We need to stop it," he said, referring to BITAM.

Committee members were clearly looking for some way to help. Although no clear decision was reached, most agreed the nationwide trust reform task force needed to be given sufficient time to review the tribal proposals that have submitted.

"We had six days, the Secretary had six months," said Hall, as he pleaded for more time.

Next week, the department will hold its eighth session on BITAM. The meeting will take place February 14 in Portland, Oregon.

Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb said his office was still finalizing dates for meetings in Billings, Montana; Window Rock, Arizona; and Phoenix, Arizona.

Get 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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