Q&A With the Navajo Fiduciary Trust Officer
In the course of carrying out major trust reform initiatives mandated by Congress in the American Indian Trust Management Reform Act of 1994, the Department of the Interior created a new structure within the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) to administer the Indian Trust. Part of this restructuring included the addition of Fiduciary Trust Officers (FTOs) to provide trust services directly to individual and tribal beneficiaries across Indian Country. Many of you know, and value, the services provided to beneficiaries by these FTOs. You contact them for information regarding your trust accounts and encounter their efforts primarily on Indian trust issues as they solve problems regarding revenue derived from trust resources such as oil and gas, timber, and grazing and compensation received through legislative settlements. The FTOs work with other bureaus of the Department of the Interior, other federal agencies such as Social Security and Veteran Affairs, as well as state and local government offices on behalf of you and your members. FTOs are part of OST Field Operations and have also been working in your communities, schools, educational organizations, and with national Indian advocacy groups such as the National Congress of American Indians to bring financial empowerment tools and education to Indian beneficiaries. This is a new initiative to offer Indian beneficiaries tools they can use in managing trust income and protecting trust assets. FTOs advocate for beneficiaries by cutting across bureaucracies, navigating the halls of government, and creating partnerships with tribes and other entities that have similar objectives.
OST has released interviews with an FTO about why these individuals became FTOs, what drives FTOs to do the work they do, and how they serve the communities they work in.
The first interview of this new series is with Navajo Region FTO Virginia Moore (Navajo and Southwest Region).
Why did you choose to become an FTO with OST?
There are four things I like about a job: traveling, meeting people, learning and helping people. That is the FTO job. I am proud to be working for an organization that has a common purpose; that is beneficiary-focused, committed, accountable, and results-oriented.
What makes FTO services valuable to beneficiaries?
FTOs serve as advocates for beneficiaries—we serve as the primary points of contact for them and as liaisons between beneficiaries and other federal agencies to respond to their inquiries or to resolve issues as they relate to their trust assets. I think having someone in the field in this capacity is unprecedented.
My work is on the Navajo Nation, which is huge, like 27,000 square miles. I handle part of Arizona; sometimes it takes three hours just to get to a meeting. People who come to see me at the office often travel many miles too.
FTOs have a lot of duties. Which responsibilities come into play most often working with the beneficiaries at this office?
Meeting with beneficiaries—explaining the fractionation problem, their estate planning options, and the effects of AIPRA* (no will). Working with other agencies to get information to the beneficiaries, e.g., lease payments, etc.
I work with other federal agencies as a liaison for beneficiaries. It keeps them from going all over the place to get answers, especially about oil and gas. It can be difficult for beneficiaries to figure out the right people to contact and how to contact them. My staff and I take that on, getting answers and resolving trust-related problems for them.
[*American Indian Probate Reform Act]
Have you any advice for beneficiaries so that they get the most out of their trust fund relationship with OST?
I encourage beneficiaries to attend outreach meetings, form an allottees association to have a voice, collectively market and negotiate on their own behalf. An association can be modeled after the Tohono O'Odham San Xavier Allottees Association with the Papago Agency. The association can help them to learn about estate planning and AIPRA. There is an association on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Reservation.
How many people are on your staff and what are their duties?
Four employees: three Account Technicians and one Account Maintenance Technician; they make my job easy because they understand the mission and know the meaning of fiduciary, so they know to do the right thing. Three speak the Navajo language, which is really important. Often, outreach events are conducted in the Navajo language, even technical terms.
How did you get involved in trust activities and what special skills did you bring to the job?
I worked for several tribal enterprises, and I have 30 years of finance and accounting experience. My bachelor’s degree is in accounting, and I have an MBA in business management.
I was a member of the Native American Finance Officer Association (NAFOA) and I learned a lot about Indian trust during my involvement with that organization, and through NAFOA I personally met Elouise Cobell in the late 1990s when she was with the InterTribal Monitoring Association (ITMA).
I speak the Navajo language. On a daily basis I explain technical matters, not only in layman’s term but also in the Navajo language.
I taught Fundamentals of Accounting and Introduction to Governmental Accounting at the University of New Mexico-Gallup Branch for four semesters.
What’s most challenging about being an FTO?
The balancing act—we wear many hats—and have a huge responsibility. There is so much going on and the challenge could be staying focused on the mission. We’re guided by the fiduciary standards, principles, and duties to do the right thing. Educating beneficiaries about estate planning, for example, and gift deeds is time consuming. Meeting with families can take hours. While we can’t change the past, we can work on how we go forward.
Sometimes I have to pick between management requests and beneficiary time. Every day is a challenge. My staff and I know it’s important work.
Fiduciary Trust Officers (FTOs) are local, primary points of contact for individual Indian and tribal trust beneficiaries. The Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) has 49 FTO positions. Their offices are often co-located with BIA field offices. For a listing of all FTOs, the Regional Trust Administrators who supervise them, and OST regions, visit the OST website.
To access a list of all FTOs, go to www.doi.gov/ost/fto.