BLOOMINGTON (AP) -- Minnesota tribal leaders on Thursday suggested ways to fix the government's embattled Indian trust account system and raised concerns about the Interior Department's proposed restructuring of it.
Neal McCaleb, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Wayne Smith, deputy assistant secretary, and Ross Swimmer, who led the bureau during the Reagan administration, met with 70 tribal leaders at the second of seven regional hearings on the proposed restructuring.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton last month announced the plan to form a new Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management to take over the trust system from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A federal judge ordered the system reformed.
Swimmer would lead the new office, which would supervise $500 million a year in royalties from 52 million acres of Indian land, primarily in the West and Midwest.
The Bush administration wants the BIA to continue to handle education, social programs and law enforcement, while the new agency takes charge of natural resources, minerals and the trust assets.
Tribal leaders raised concerns about the costs of a new management office.
"We oppose the reform plan," said Eli Hunt, chairman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. "We feel it would strip the federal government of its current trust responsibilities."
Some urged Congress to allocate more money for current programs they say are underfunded.
The trust accounts were created in 1887 by the federal government to manage royalties paid to tribal members for such activities as logging and mining on Indian land.
Norman Deschampe, chairman of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, feared that hunting and fishing rights might be altered. Others wanted to have Indian resources managed on a local and tribal level.
McCaleb also updated the tribal leaders on the BIA's problem-plagued computer system. After security problems in the system were identified by a consultant, Norton closed the entire system earlier this month, resulting in a delay of checks to trust beneficiaries.
Following a court order this week to turn the system back on, the BIA mailed out general assistance checks Thursday. But McCaleb said, "Unfortunately, I don't know if everyone will have their checks by Christmas."
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