Indians seek delay of trust plan

National Congress of American Indians

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"Getting their due"

Tribal leaders have asked Congress to delay approval of the Interior Department's latest plan to overhaul its trust management system.

"At this point, the department's plans still do not include trust standards," Tex Hall, co-chairman of the task force, said in a Dec. 17 news release from the National Congress of American Indians.

Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Gale Norton killed her proposal to consolidate trust fund duties into a new agency after Indian communities roundly rejected the move. She then began working on a solution with a joint Interior/tribal task force, but those discussions disintegrated as both parties reached an impasse over standards.

Interior officials unveiled a new strategy Dec. 4 that realigns functions within the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Special Trustees for American Indians. Earlier this week, the task force convened in Washington, D.C., to discuss the suggested reprogramming.

In addition to Hall's comments, tribal leaders also criticized the strategy for lacking details. Interior "needs to provide more information for tribal leaders to be able to evaluate its organizational proposal," said Sue Masten, co-chairwoman of the task force and chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe.

The department has submitted the plan to the House Appropriations Committee's Interior and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

"This new reorganization will improve the effectiveness and accountability of [Interior]," department officials wrote in a letter to Rep. Joe Skeen, the subcommittee's chairman, (R-N.M.).

Funding needed for additional staffing next year is available within the Bush administration's budget request for fiscal 2003, according to the letter.

Since the late 1800s, Interior has been responsible for handling the fees that oil and gas companies, ranchers, farmers and other businesses pay for using some 56 million acres that American Indians received in treaties with the U.S. government. Yet the department has failed to create a financial management system that works. Its inability to account for the money and subsequently to build the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System has resulted in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit.

The trial, which brings contempt charges against Norton, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb and others, resumes May 1.

McCaleb, meanwhile, announced his resignation last month, effective Dec. 31.

"Because of the serious issues we are facing, we need someone who has considerable experience to step into those shoes," said Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

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