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Indian Tribes Feel Government Creep

by Joseph B. Frazier, Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - February 9, 2005

Special Trusts office taking over BIA duties, they say

PORTLAND -- Representatives of Northwest Indian tribes from seven states are in Portland this week to seek common ground on issues affecting them, and possible infringement on tribal sovereignty by the Bureau of Indian Affairs is near the top of the list.

The Office of Special Trusts, formed five years ago to improve accountability in the BIA, is drawing much of the acrimony.

"The Special Trusts office is taking over the responsibility of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It's slowing down our business," said Mel Tonasket of the Colville Confederation of Eastern Washington.

"We are here to try to stop it, or to slow it down. They are expanding control over (Indian) trust land in our view."

He said there is concern that the office may move against tribal range management or timber next.

"We don't know where it will end," he said. "We don't want to revert to the Indian agent days of the past, when they controlled what we could and could not do with our property."

Danny Jordan, commerce director for the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council of California, said tribes are being threatened with a loss of money if they don't turn over records of tribal businesses.

"Those funds are needed to build technical support," Jordan said. "That's the way we see it in Indian country."

Ernie Stensgar, president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, said the formation of the office was announced at a meeting of tribal leaders five years ago by Interior Secretary Gale Norton with no tribal input.

That left a bad taste in the mouths of many Indian leaders, and it still lingers.

"They're taking money from the BIA to create a new office with people who aren't trained in Indian country," said Stensgar, who also is chairman of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe in Idaho.

He said the tribes understood that they would be consulted about reorganization in the BIA.

"It took us all by surprise. We were flabbergasted. It was out of the blue," he said.

Stensgar and Dorian Sanchez, of the Nisqually Tribe in Western Washington, said at first glance President Bush's budget proposal, which cuts many domestic programs, also looks grim for the tribes.

"It's going to hurt, from all the information we've heard so far," said Sanchez. "It's going to affect all tribes. It involves health, housing, natural resources, telecommunications, water quality."

Tonasket said his Colville Confederation has developed some of its own medical programs because the Indian Health Service doesn't have money to keep up with growing demand.

But he said programs rely heavily on third-party billings, such as to Medicare and Medicaid, and that those programs also are threatened with cuts.

"It will have a direct effect on what we can produce for our people," he said.

Jay Minthorn, chief of the Confederated tribes of the Umatilla in Oregon, said the fate of salmon remains a major concern.

"They keep putting energy over our resources," he said. "They're putting money ahead of our treaty rights. It's a big thing."

Joseph B. Frazier, Associated Press
Indian Tribes Feel Government Creep
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 9, 2005

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