Interior Secretary Ken Salazar

New Commission on Indian Trust

Rob Capriccioso

WASHINGTON – The federal agency that has long failed to properly manage Indian trust assets has announced a decision to create a commission to evaluate Indian trust administration and reform. Whether the agency can be trusted on this matter remains to be seen.

Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in an announcement released on July 7 that his proposed commission would build on what he called the “progress” of the Cobell settlement. The settlement, approved June 20 in D.C. district court, is scheduled to grant $1.9 billion of a total of $3.4 billion in the deal to the department to create a new program that will buy back fractionated lands from individual Indians. Fractionation has been one of the problems Interior has cited in its reasoning for faulty record keeping over the years. Through the course of the case, which ran since 1996, it was found that Interior mismanaged the accounts of thousands of Indians, likely undercutting their financial earnings by large margins. Exactly how much Interior stole from Indians isn’t known because a full accounting has never been conducted—nor is one ever scheduled to occur. How Interior can do right by Indians without doing such an accounting remains to be seen.

Looking beyond those difficulties, Salazar offered lofty language and great hope for the new development. “This Commission will play a critical role in our forward-looking, comprehensive evaluation of how Interior manages and administers our trust responsibilities to the First Americans,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the Commission as we move forward on President Obama’s commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for American Indian nations.”

Salazar’s statement offered little by way of specifics on what he expects the commission to do and how he expects it to accomplish its goals. With some news reports indicating that Salazar isn’t expecting to stay on at Interior much longer, some in Indian country wonder how committed he will truly be to seeing the commission through.

Officially, according to an Interior press release, the Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform “will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of Interior’s trust management and provide recommendations on how to improve performance.” According to the secretary’s charter, the five-member commission will be expected to examine Interior’s performance on trust management, seek input from affected individuals and tribes, identify opportunities for enhancing accountability, responsiveness, and efficiency, as well as provide recommendations on improvements to the current trust administration system.

Again, what exactly that means and how that will play out is unknown at this point. And the fact that the very agency that will host the commission is the same agency that failed Indians for so many years was not noted by Salazar in his announcement. What is known is that the small commission will have a quite difficult task ahead of it. If it is to oversee all aspects of Indian trust reform, it will be taking on an area that hundreds of Interior officials have never been able to get right to date.

Until August 7, Salazar is seeking nominations and input from the public on individuals to serve on the new commission, as well as comments on the commission’s proposed charter. Interior officials said the announcement fulfills one of the actions Salazar outlined in a 2009 Secretarial Order regarding steps to be taken upon approval by the U.S. District Court of the Cobell settlement. They noted that on June 20, the district court approved the $3.4 billion settlement, “paving the way for payments to as many as half-a-million American Indians to resolve their class-action litigation regarding the federal government’s management of individual trust accounts and assets.”

“Recent approval of the Cobell settlement by the U.S. District Court signaled the beginning of a new era in the U.S. Government’s relations with American Indian communities,” Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes said in a statement. “We must carry out our trust responsibilities in a pro-active and transparent manner, and the establishment of this commission is an important step in the process.”

Following the 30-day comment and nominations period, and in consultation with trust beneficiaries, Salazar plans to appoint a chair and four members. Members are expected to have experience and/or expertise in trust management, financial management, asset management, natural resource management, and federal agency operations and budgets, as well as experience as account holders and in Indian country.

In coming days, Salazar and Hayes are scheduled to attend regional consultation meetings with tribal leaders to begin discussions on the land consolidation component of the settlement. “These discussions will provide valuable input in developing and implementing a strategy to benefit tribal communities and help free up trust lands,” according to Interior’s press release.

A copy of the Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reforms charter is available online.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



candyo's picture
Submitted by candyo on
When I started on my journey to uncover my Native American Indian Heritage, I was shocked that every turn there were some people who did not want me to know about the past... I had my adoption records unsealed by the same county that took me away from my full-blood mother and gave me to another Chickasaw/Cherokee family, who raised me up to be proud of my ancestral background even though I did not know their original family names. The Judge who opened my file told me who my grandparents were, their names and my real parents names. Then, they told me I could join one of the Tribes by my choice since both, of my birth parents were full-blood. I had to pick, without knowing about either Tribe. I chose the Tribe of my birthmother. Which I became a member of and enrolled, got my CDIB, and the Judge gave me a copy of my original birth certificate which I was very grateful... However, I was never accepted as one of the "tribal" members. I think because I was raised away from the Tribe and they did not know my name. My adopted parents owned their own business in the housing industry. My Dad who was my mentor never spoke about his growing-up years I guess it was too painful. He said he was made to go to a boarding school and they beat him and starved him. He decided to run away and he hopped on a train and nearly died from malnutrition. He then, learned a trade-how to build houses. So he started his own construction company which he owned for over 50 years. So, he raised his family with his own money not on welfare or govt benefits. I wanted to build houses like he did so I started my own home-building business. I built houses in Oklahoma for over 15 years. While I owned my own business, I still went to College and my Dad paid the first two years, and I had to pay the other five. It took me 7 years to get a four year degree cause I only went to school parttime. But I finally graduated which opened alot of doors for me. I tried to contact my birthmother but she denied giving birth to me when I called her. I don't think she told anyone she had me. But I did talk with my birthfathers brother who lives in my same state. They invited me over for brunch and I met his wife who dances at the Powwows. My whole family went to watch her dance. I wanted to meet my real father, who was in the Navy during the Korean War however, he got a lung disease and passed on before I could meet him. He lived on the Wind River and had a good life! I contacted Senators in Oklahoma to find out about my past generations, however, I got more information from the Oklahoma Western people at University of Oklahoma. Then, some information from the census was obtained from NARA in Ft. Worth, Texas who handles the plains states information. When I went to my birthfathers probate my real mother who gave birth to me was there. She still did not want to acknowledge that she had me. So I will let it go. I did get to see my real biological brother for the first time. My brother I was raised with went to the hearing with me. Most of the women were very hateful to me but I showed the Judge my papers given to me by the Judge, all of my documentation and the names were on the custody documents that had to be signed by both parties. I'm sure there are alot of adopted children out there that did not know where they came from. All you have to do is look it up...

candyo's picture
Submitted by candyo on
As a Native American who was adopted out at 1 week old, I found out that the family who I was being raised by had adopted me from another woman who had gone to a very well known "unwed mothers home" to have me. I decided I wanted to know where I came from so I had my adoption papers unsealed by a Juvenile Court Judge named Carol Hubbard in the same county courthouse my adoption took place. She gave me my original birthcertificate and told me the names of my birth families. She said since both parents were full-blood Native Americans I could choose which Tribe I wanted to be enrolled in. I had to decide without knowing either Tribe or my real parents. I went with my birth mothers Tribe. Then, when I called to speak to my real mother she denied that she gave birth to me. She had not told anyone that she had another child. She told me I was mistaken... Then, I was able to reach my birth fathers brother cause he lived in my state. Although, my real father had been in the Navy and had lived on a Cruiser/Destroyer for several years and the asbestos got to his lungs and he died of a lung disease before I could go to Montana to meet him. I was so sad because I saw pictures of him and my first son looked just like him. It was hard to accept for me after all the searching for years and years. I was invited by the courts to his probate hearing and I met my biological brother. He was there with my biological mother since he is disabled. She would not talk to me. She told the Judge that she still denies giving birth to me even though I had all the documentation to prove who I was and she had to sign away custody to both of my adopted parents. I don't think she told anyone about me not even her other two daughters... She named her second daughter after me my same name that was on my original birth certificate. She said she never went by that name, however, her sister said that was her name before she started to boarding school. They would change their names once they were in school. I don't hold any antimosity toward her. She made a choice and shes sticking to it. The Tribe has always been helpful because they helped my older two sons go to college, one at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ar and the other one just graduated from University of South Florida as a Civil Engineer. The first one got a free ride to play Football and my other son is wanting to build bridges and rebuild the infrastruture here in America. It has been a long journey, cause my adopted mother left me a Wheat Farm which they had owned since the early 1900's and my husband and I tried to get a Farm Loan after my mother passed away from cancer but they denied our loan and some white guy named Mark Roggow and his wife have been farming it for the years since my mom passed on. We filed with the Keepseagle and the Cobell. When I went to my real biological fathers probate hearing cause he died recently, and most of the people there were not very accomodating to me. I was his biological child, a blood relative, but some of his children stood up and stated they did not want me to be there. I was asked by the Judge if I had any records that would prove my relationship to him. I had all my papers in order, and even though my mother said she had never married my birth father I had the Marriage license with me where they got married. She never divorced him but just lived with her second husband for the rest of his years. My birth fathers wife had died before him and he was alone when he died on the Wind River in Billings Montana. So my journey has gone full circle. Still I would like to have a good relationship with my brothers and sisters that I never knew I had maybe, someday they will be able to come see my family. I have five children of my own and six grandchildren. They are the love of my life! Thanks for listening and I encourage everyone adopted or otherwise find out your real families. It is so exciting... CMO from the Oklahoma Plains to the Florida ocean area. Be of good health and stay focused on the right road.