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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Native American Trust Reform Program Must Have Objective Standards by Congressman Frank Pallone Jr.

It is widely known that the Department of the Interior has grossly mismanaged tribal lands and has lost track of billions of dollars in mining, logging, and other royalties belonging to American Indian Tribes and individuals. Congress has attempted to address this situation for years, and has been frustrated by the Department's apathy toward addressing the issue.

For the past three years, the Interior Department has consistently offered proposals that fail to meet the concerns that Native Americans have in regards to trust reform. When the DOI first proposed a reorganization of the Indian trust accounts last year, it was chastised by the House Resources Committee for failing to consult with tribes. After agreeing to work with the Tribal Leaders Task Force and to hold a series of hearings around Indian country on trust reform, the department concluded that it could not arrive at a consensus with the task force and dismissed its members, offering no viable solution.

Last July, Interior again tried to avoid tribal consultation by initiating a provision to the House Interior Appropriations bill that would have limited trust accounting to the years 1985 through 2000. Fortunately, tribal representatives and other members of Congress were able to galvanize enough support to defeat that provision quickly.

In December, the Interior once more tried to circumvent tribal consultation by reprogramming funds within the Department. Again, not a single tribe was consulted, and in spite of what the DOI may believe, a switch of funding from one account to another at the Department's request does not imply full Congressional approval of the Interior's trust reform program.

Today, I would like to call your attention to the latest attempt by the Interior to address this issue. In keeping with its previous attempts, the DOI has once again failed to effectively address the concerns of Native Americans in regard to trust reform. In his fiscal year 2004 budget proposal the President has requested essentially level funding for the Department of Interior at $10.7 billion. However, by pooling resources from other DOI programs, the budget request includes a significant increase in funding for trust management within the BIA and the Office of the Special Trustee (OST). The Office of the Special Trustee is scheduled to receive a $123 million increase - to $275 million. According to the fiscal year 2004 budget request that increase will be possible because of a proposed $63 million cut to BIA Construction and an $8 million cut to Indian Water and Claims Settlements. Of BIA Construction accounts, Education Construction is slated to lose $32 million - despite a terrible backlog of new school construction needs that everyone agrees must be taken care of promptly.

Repeatedly, tribal leaders have emphasized that the funding needed to correct the problems and inefficiencies in DOI trust management must not come from existing BIA programs or administrative monies.

Rather, the Department of the Interior should request additional funding from Congress to correct the internal problems that they themselves created through their administrative mistakes. Yet once again, DOI has demonstrated its flagrant disregard for the people who have the greatest interest in trust reform.

In adopting a unilateralist approach, Interior has failed to consult tribal leaders when structuring its trust reform program, which has resulted in a program that requests significant new resources without a clear plan for accountability in place. Increased funding for the OST has the potential to be money well spent - but it is an empty promise without clear accountability in place or a plan set forth to work with the impacted tribes and individuals whose accounts are at stake. Tribes have a wealth of experience in identifying what works and what does not, and yet DOI has consistently refused to consult them.

If the Department of the Interior was ever to become serious about enacting meaningful and effective trust reform they must follow three points. First, any trust reform program must have objective standards that do not discriminate between one tribe and another. Second, there should be an independent commission, which oversees trust management activity. Lastly, and most importantly, the DOI must consult tribal leaders on trust reform matters to ensure that their concerns are represented fairly. It is then, and only then, that the Department of the Interior can put an end to previous history of failed attempts, and enter into an age of positive and effective trust reform management.

Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., currently serves as an active member of the Native American Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. He has recently been named the Vice-Chair of the Caucus.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

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