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. Read the first interview with the Navajo Fiduciary Trust Officer.
The next interview of this series is with Standing Rock Agency FTO Edward Grant (OST Great Plains and Alaska Region).
Why did you choose to become an FTO with OST??
I started with Indian Affairs in 1986 as an accounting technician in the Aberdeen, South Dakota, office. Then I became a trust accountant. I finished my accounting credits at Presentation College but my bachelor’s degree is in business, finance, and marketing, from North Dakota State University. I moved to Minneapolis for a better position, which was on the admin side. After Education and Law Enforcement went their own way and many of the tribes compacted, I really didn’t feel like I was helping any more. I was on the board of an American Indian charter school. I was working with them on their accountability issues. They asked what more they could do, and I said “hire me.” I worked for them for a year. Then I went to work as a realtor for Caldwell Banker Burnett. After three years, I decided to go back to federal service. I had promised my wife that if we weren’t millionaires after three years I’d revisit federal employment. At that time, I had several opportunities. I could have gone with the Medicare agency or another company and stayed in Minneapolis. But I decided to go back home. I grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, and still have a lot of family there. Fort Yates, North Dakota, is about an hour south on the same Missouri River. So, I came back here even though I had to sell the house and move.
Standing Rock is a big reservation, about 2.5 million acres. It’s mostly cattle grazing and agriculture. I can see the Sitting Bull monument right outside my window.
What makes FTO services valuable to beneficiaries?
We’re located right here, with a clear understanding of land descriptions, ownership, and accounting.
The biggest beneficiary is the tribe. There was a big settlement that was invested. The interest on that settlement goes a long way to fund infrastructure development, education and community initiatives here. We also assist in getting cash flow working for tribes and individual beneficiaries.
And we got the backlog of SDAs [Special Deposit Accounts] cleaned up!
FTOs have a lot of duties. Which responsibilities come into play most often working with the beneficiaries at this office?
The staff handles address updates and account maintenance, and other routine issues. The harder questions come to my office — like probate questions. I have a map in my office and I show people where their lands are. And I show them a list of other owners of the same land. Sometimes they say things like, “Oh yea, my sister lives in California now” or “I didn’t know about that cousin.” Being able to show people the map and to give them explanations in person is better than reading their statements.
Have you any advice for beneficiaries so that they get the most out of their trust fund relationship with OST?
I suggest they come in and see me for a full explanation of their assets. I also suggest they stay off the WAU [Whereabouts Unknown, accounts without current address information on file with OST] list so they get regular statements and other information. I try to operate like a bank. I started my federal work as a savings and loan examiner.
How many people are on your staff and what are their duties?
I have one office administrator who handles property, travel, purchases, and such. There are two accounting technicians who mostly work with call-ins; they send the hard questions to me. They also log all activity, process account updates, and work closely with the tribal short term loan program. That’s loans provided by the tribe to people who may be waiting for a check to arrive in a few months and who need funds to tide them over.
How did you get involved in trust activities and what special skills did you bring to the job?
Early in my career I was an IIM [Individual Indian Money] accounting technician for BIA in Aberdeen, South Dakota. In that position, we handled funds as though they were in passbook savings accounts. I brought my computer skills — automation — to that job. I had the latest knowledge of what was being used at the time. I also bring a Native understanding, since I’m Native, and banking experience.
What’s most challenging about being an FTO?
Competing deadlines! Administration wants it right away, and accounting wants it right away. It’s about making enough time to help all.
Really, I’m just here to help people. This past winter the wife and I were at the tribal casino for Sunday brunch. We don’t really gamble, but they have a nice buffet, and a fine dining room as well. An elder from the community named Mary [not her real name], who is in her early eighties, approached us and thanked me for my assistance in getting her aunt’s IIM account and Cobell settlement funds straightened out. She stated her aunt had received all of her monies earlier in the week. I remember her aunt as being my oldest walk-in WAU to date. Her aunt will be 97 this fall.
What has been your greatest accomplishment/achievement as the FTO in the communities you serve?
Believe that I was given the title Fiduciary Trust Officer, but I still had to earn their trust. Ask anybody at the tribe or agency and they’ll say they trust me.
When I got here, they were struggling to have fossils returned to the tribe from Concordia College. When the tribe thought no federal agencies were aiding them, I took it upon myself to go to Concordia College and meet directly with the college president to formally address their concerns. Six to eight months later, the tribe had the bones back. Today those bones are displayed in tribal buildings and the casino, and cared for by the Standing Rock Paleontology Department.
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 list 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.