Opposition to a controversial Bush administration proposal that would dramatically alter the federal trust relationship is mounting.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee has been holding meetings across the country to solicit input on a bill that would settle the Cobell trust fund lawsuit. Most tribes support that goal but they are criticizing a sweeping set of changes, unveiled just last week, that would go much further.
With time running out to pass the bill, tribal leaders said they were broadsided by the proposal. “Where is the dialogue? Where is the respect to Indian Country?” asked Ernie Stensgar, the president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.
ATNI, which represents 54 tribes in Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Alaska, is preparing for a meeting on the bill in Portland, Oregon, tomorrow. Fawn Sharp, the chairwoman of the Quinault Nation of Washington, said the tribes were “appalled” by provisions that would effectively eliminate the federal trust responsibility.
Sharp pointed out that S.1439, the trust reform bill, was introduced more than a year ago. But “the administration has decided to wait until the last moment to bring forward proposals that would absolve the United States of its trust responsibilities and treaty obligations with Indian Nations and fundamentally alter the nature of federal-Indian relationships,” she said.
The changes haven’t been approved by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, or Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman. But one committee member, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), has already said he opposes the proposal out of fear it would jeopardize pending tribal trust cases.
The nine tribes in Oregon supported Smith’s stance at a summit he held yesterday, The Salem Stateman Journal reported. ATNI said the United South Eastern Tribes and the Great Plains Chairman’s Association also oppose the changes that are outlined in the “briefing paper” released by the Senate committee last week.
“As proposed, these changes would not remove the trust status of Indian lands, but would reallocate significant decision-making authority and legal responsibility from the federal government to the Indian tribes and individuals,” the document states.
Among the changes being suggested are a shift to a “beneficiary-managed” trust for tribes and individual Indians. This would take the federal government off the hook for future, as well as past, mismanagement claims.
Another proposal calls for the forced consolidation, through voluntary and involuntary mechanisms, of the Indian estate. Highly fractionated parcels would be whittled down to just 10 owners in the next 10 years.
Finally, the administration is asking Congress to resolve all tribal trust claims in addition to the Cobell suit over the Individual Indian Money trust. Takings claims, land claims and environmental claims would not be affected.
Left out of the document, however, was a settlement amount. The Senate committee has floated an $8 billion figure, and a top aide said McCain is sticking to the number.
But the White House has failed to say whether it supports or opposes the figure, and hasn’t provided a number of its own. The briefing paper only states that the settlement amount could be in the “multi-billion” range.
“It’s the White House and the Office of Management and Budget that have not given us a number,” Dorgan told tribal leaders at the National Congress of American Indians conference in Sacramento last month.
The Senate committee is meeting in Bismarck, North Dakota, today for its latest meeting. After the Portland meeting tomorrow, the staff is due to return to Washington for a tribal leaders meeting on November 16. A new date for the postponed Albuquerque, New Mexico, meeting has not been announced.
Please see here for related stories and background information (including a copy of the INDIAN TRUST REFORM ACT)
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