NEW YORK – While Native Americans await a judge's ruling on how the government should manage Indian trust fund money, the Bush administration is making efforts to reach out to the tribal communities.
The Native American Rights Fund sued the federal government last year, saying it owes at least $10 billion to Native American landowners, a result of massive mismanagement by the Interior Department of its trust accounts.
For more than 100 years, the Interior Department has leased properties and processed revenue earned from farming, drilling and other uses of Native American-owned land. It distributed payments to more than 300,000 American Indian landowners through the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System.
Federal Judge Royce Lamberth found the government guilty in 1999 of not upholding its responsibility to the Indians, and held then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt. They were fined $600,000 for failing to turn over documents in the 5-year-old class-action lawsuit.
He is considering similar charges against current Interior Secretary Gale Norton and 40 other Interior officials.
"Our understanding is, it's imminent -- it's coming down in the next few days," said Keith Harper, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. "It's going to be huge."
Harper said tribes have been trying to work with the Interior Department on a trust management plan. The tribes want the court to appoint an independent person to oversee it.
But Norton has rejected that idea and instead proposed a new Bureau of Indian Trust Asset Management to oversee reform. "The problem is, the negotiations are going very poorly," Harper said.
Former Special Trustee Thomas Slonaker resigned in July after finding many records were either missing or destroyed. He said he was given a choice of resigning or being fired after continuous struggles with Interior officials as he tried to explain the missing cash.
"Things have not been going well in terms of trust reform, but it's not always the message they want to hear," Slonaker told The Associated Press.
A recently released report by the Interior Department's inspector general said the "litigation has so embroiled and angered those involved that they cannot see or think clearly in order to make a correct decision."
Several federal lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Col., have introduced legislation to reform trust management. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is expected to continue its probe of the issue when Congress returns from its August recess.
But BIA officials say much progress is being made.
"There's a lot of folks who are outside of the process that are throwing rocks at it," said BIA spokesman Dan DuBray. "We are working … shoulder to shoulder with the representatives of Indian country on coming to a resolution to this problem."
In fact, a task force assigned to help Indians and government hammer out the kinks in the system is meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, this week. The group has held about 10 meetings this year.
"We've developed strong relationships with tribal leaders," DuBray said. "We're having a very good dialogue with folks on this issue."
Meanwhile, BIA is continuing its outreach to Indian country.
Indian tribes, corporate American and federal agencies are holding an economic summit in Phoenix, Ariz., Sept. 16-19 to boost business opportunities and living wage jobs in Indian country. The goal is to create 100,000 jobs for Native Americans by 2008 and establish sustainable, market-driven tribal economies by 2020.
BIA is also holding regional meetings to help Indian schools put President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act into action.
The president's 2003 budget provides $84 million to remedy deficiencies in trust programs on top of last year's $153 million appropriation to expand trust program operations, a $35 million increase from the previous year.
But Native Americans are concerned that the president may try to alter government policy in such a way that the federal government would deal with states over tribal land issues rather than with the tribes themselves.
"The United States is supposed to be operating for the benefit of tribes and making decisions that at least, at a minimum, are considering their interest," Harper said. "Most of the time, they don't consider their interests at all."
"If there's one thing Indian people want more than anything else, it's to keep their identity," Harper said. They can't do that if they must answer to state control, he added.
BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the Bush administration is committed to maintaining the government-to-government policy, whereby the federal government deals with tribal governments.