ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Interior Secretary Gale Norton says she supports forming a task force that would help her smooth money-management problems with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“As your trustee, I have a responsibility to see that this system gets fixed,” she told tribal leaders from across the nation during a daylong meeting Thursday in Albuquerque. “I’m open to alternatives. I want to know, though, that at the end of this process that we haven’t let things go on as usual.”
Tribal leaders told Norton they oppose her plan to reorganize and consolidate the management of billions of dollars in Indian trust assets, saying they were never consulted.
“You should be looking out for the tribes,” Ernie L. Stensgar of the National Congress of American Indians, told Norton, who faces contempt charges on whether she misled a judge about efforts to fix a century of mismanaged Indian trust funds.
“If you’re going to have the trust of the tribes who you’re supposed to represent, you must do better than this,” Stensgar said.
Thursday’s meeting was the first of seven on the proposal to move trust responsibilities from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to a new Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management. The next will be Dec. 20 in Minneapolis.
Last month, Norton announced the formation of the new agency to oversee the accounting of $500 million a year in historically mismanaged royalties from Indian land. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had managed the assets but a federal court ordered the system reformed.
The Bush administration wants the BIA to handle education, social programs and law enforcement and the new bureau to handle natural resources and minerals and the trust assets.
Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye of Window Rock, Ariz., said the Navajo tribal attorney general is asking Norton’s department for documents having anything to do with trust asset management since Sept. 1.
The request went to Norton on Thursday as a Freedom of Information request, and Kelsey said he wants consultation meetings halted until the Interior Department provides the information.
“We’re simply asking to be consulted, not insulted,” Begaye said.
Darnell J. Maria, vice president of the Ramah Navajo chapter in New Mexico, said the trust asset management will only create more red tape for people seeking Indian services.
“I’m afraid the new agency isn’t going to know how to deal with Indian people and Indian issues,” he said.
At a gathering of the National Congress last week, some 193 tribes adopted a resolution opposing the reorganization and transfer of trust responsibilities to the new Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management. They suggested the Interior Department, which oversees the BIA, set up a task force that would allow tribes a chance to comment on what should be done.
Norton, in an interview with The Associated Press during a break in the meeting, said she would support a task force that would study her proposal and provide alternatives.
“There’s widespread consensus that we need improvement,” Norton said. “We need to work together now on what process will allow that improvement to happen.”
Norton said Thursday her agency has been criticized both for waiting too long to make a proposal and for consulting with tribes too soon in the process.
The Interior Department doesn’t have a lot of details to offer the tribes yet because it is awaiting tribal comments, she said.
“We are in a position of having to have a proposal for change. ... Until we have something to substitute, this is the best we have to offer,” she said.
Tribal leaders objected to the proposed changes and the way the administration has presented them.
Olney Patt Jr., chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, said the reorganization “is a defense strategy.”
“I think the final result is the BIA will be dismantled, and that’s our only presence in the federal government. We’d like to see it retained and not destroyed,” Patt said.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth opened contempt hearings for Norton and Neal McCaleb, assistant secretary for Indian affairs. A lawyer for the tribes has accused them of misleading the judge about efforts to fix the mismanaged Indian trust funds.
Lamberth must decide if Norton and McCaleb misled the court about the security of the Indian trust fund, concealed repeated failures of a $40 million trust fund accounting system and deceived the court about efforts to piece together how much Indian money was lost due to government mismanagement.
On the Net:
Interior Department Indian trust management: http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust/