WASHINGTON – The evaluation to re-organization the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) comes under the advisement of President Trump’s executive order for federal agencies to examine ways to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability.
The BIA has held nine “consultation” sessions this summer to examine ways to reorganize the Bureau.
The Secretary of the Interior recently announced his vision to establish 13 unified regional office boundaries across all the Department's Bureaus, led by a single regional director – with authority over every bureau within the region.
These regionally assigned directors would be posted for a term of two years before the leadership position would rotate to another bureau in the region.
The Bureau of Indian affairs began with the War Department in 1824 and the Department of Interior hasn't undergone a reorganization in over a century.
Under Secretary Zinke’s proposal, both the BIA Navajo Region and the Eastern Oklahoma Region would be eliminated. The Eastern Oklahoma Region would be dissolved and those Tribes would be included in a Region that includes all of Oklahoma, Eastern New Mexico, and Texas.
Of grave concern for many tribes are the federal government's trust responsibilities and its ability to take land into trust. The land into trust responsibility originated from one of the nation’s more egregious policy failures in our Nation’s history; the failed attempt to assimilate Native people by seizing collectively held tribal land and allotting such lands to individuals.
“Secretary Zinke must recognize that the Department cannot proceed with any reorganization, especially actions that would reduce present resources because the past continuing resolutions have already reduced funding at least 21 percent,” said Principal Chief James Floyd of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in a letter to the BIA.
The reorganization does not establish the Oklahoma Area Education Office and reduces education services currently provided to Indian students and tribal citizens residing in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. It would also affect real estate services, self-governance funds, natural resource management, public safety and justice as well as the federal transit administration.
A list of commentary posted to the BIA website cites major concerns with the on-going unorganized efforts of the bureau as several of the location sessions were changed last minute and thus violate the intent of a public listening session.
The Bureau’s lack of transparency and communication with the tribes as well as their out of touch ideals were cited by Osage Director of Strategic Planning and Self-Governance, Candy Thomas.
Consultations have been held across the country in response to months of Indian Countries complaints on Capitol Hill after the Trump administration agreed to consult tribes about the controversial reorganization at the Department.
"This is an opportunity to shape the department for the next 100 years, to provide long-term, meaningful benefit for all, including tribes and Indian Affairs," John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, wrote in a Dear Tribal Leader Letter.
“They are just going through the motions. As soon as they figure out how to get everyone on the same page, expect radical changes,” said Osage Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear.
The Dear Tribal Leaders letter released by the Department listed no details with respect to potential or proposed reorganization plans because, at the time, none had been developed.
“There must be a real opportunity for tribal input and the ability to impact the outcome of any proposals or plans,” stated Dave Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, in an 8-page letter to the Interior Department.
Despite the vast reaching upheaval, Secretary Zinke has said the national system might not be imposed on the BIA, stating to Congress that the results of the consultations will determine how the Trump administration moves forward.
"I've always said that I believe the nations are sovereign and it's a partnership, it's a relationship," Zinke said, though he quickly added: "I think it's to their advantage to join."
Key lawmakers, Republican and Democrat alike, have repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of tribal consultation on the reorganization.
“Thus, a review of these structures to ensure the Department and the BIA are addressing issues facing Indian Country today can be a worthy endeavor. However, reorganization can be healthy only if it is done right and if it empowers tribes for self-determination and improves the United States’ provision of services to tribes and Indian people,” Troy “Scott” Weston, President of the Oglala Sioux.
Longstanding policy and executive orders across several administrations noted the government’s commitment to true government-to-government consultation with tribes and any proposed reorganization must encompass the same kind of consultation.
The appropriations bill otherwise allows the Trump administration to spend nearly $18 million on the reorganization in the fiscal year 2019, which begins on October 1. Of that amount, $500,000 would come from the BIA budget.
“And if we can have an honest conversation about the mistakes that were made in the past and work towards avoiding those, repeating those in this administration you would do a wonderful service to Indian Country, said Joe Bray, Chief of Staff to the Sac and Fox Nation.
Two consultation sessions remain; August 21 in Rapid City, IA and August 23 in Seattle, WA.
More information and transcript copies of listening sessions can be found at https://www.bia.gov/as-ia/raca/doi-reorganization.
August 31, 2018, is the deadline for written comments which can be submitted via email to