Witnesses: BIA stifles tribal self-government
By NOELLE STRAUB
Star-Tribune Washington bureau
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
WASHINGTON -- Indian tribes want to move toward more self-governance, but red tape and foot-dragging by federal agencies continuously throws a wrench in their attempts, tribal leaders testified Tuesday.
"It gets frustrating to me," said James Steele Jr., chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation in Montana.
"I think the essence of self-governance is for us that are at this table and other tribes to not have to come to D.C. and to ask for this or ask for that. Keep the federal responsibility, it needs to be maintained," he testified. "That's a treaty right, that's a treaty responsibility. But give us the tools to be self-governing."
Twenty years ago, Congress first allowed trial projects in tribal self-governance. That effort has now expanded into a permanent program allowing tribes to contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service to carry out many services themselves, including law enforcement, education, welfare assistance, real estate services and natural resource programs.
The Interior Department has contracts with 234 tribes worth a total of about $380 million a year, and IHS has more than $1 billion in contracts with more than 320 tribes.
While tribal leaders and senators agreed that the original legislation has worked well in many ways and brought positive change, there remain numerous problems that need to be fixed. Legislation has been proposed in the U.S. House to address them.
Several tribal leaders told of delayed federal reimbursement of their costs and said the BIA sometimes agrees to a contract only to change the dollar amounts later as the agency's allocations shift. Faced with shortfalls from the government, tribes may have to reach into their own funds to cover the costs for federal programs.
The federal agencies continue to treat the tribes as if they need more oversight and federal involvement, said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe in Washington state.
"The notion that they don't trust the Indians, I'm staying this very bluntly, is still out there, and we're still fighting that image," Allen said.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said the BIA holds $7 million to upgrade irrigation systems on the Wind River Indian Reservation -- but that only $200,000 has been spent in the past two years because of red tape and contract difficulties. He asked Steele if that great a delay was typical on other reservations.
"In general, it's an accurate statement," Steele said.
"Then I would find that disturbing," Barrasso replied. He said the BIA should put tribes in a position to succeed "and then the government really ought to just get out of the way."
The problems are frustrating to BIA employees, too, testified Jim Cason, Interior associate deputy secretary. He said the agency faces the pressure of trying to spread scarce dollars fairly over numerous needs of all tribes. "Every dollar I give to one tribe is a dollar I can't give to another tribe," he said.
Cason also said the BIA is working on improving the timing of payments. But he said the self-governance office is understaffed.
A grant process might work better than the current way of contracting, he said. "We'd like to simply the process as well, but we're tasked to provide accountability for where did every dollar go, how did it get spent," he said.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the committee has held numerous hearings on various problems in Indian Country and always asks the federal witnesses if they have enough funding and staffing, yet never get straightforward answers.
"If we're putting up roadblocks, whether it's procedural or through regulations or through different administrative requirements, that doesn't work," Tester said. "We've got some work to do."
Proposed House legislation would revise the self-governance requirements of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.
Allen said the legislation should clarify the reasons the agency may decline a tribe's proposal on a specific contract and establish a time by which the agency must respond, instead of dragging it to "time immemorial."
The bill should also provide a clear avenue for appeals, provide clear and consistent authority to tribes to carry out construction projects and prevent the BIA from unilaterally changing the funding numbers in a contract, he said.