This house of thieves

The Indian trust suit -- and what it means about our government

  • Paul VanDevelder


In 1994, as corporations were locating vast reserves of oil and gas on Indian reservations, a feisty middle-aged woman named Elouise Cobell decided the time had come for the federal government to account for how it divvied up and awarded mineral royalties on Indian lands.

As a community organizer in the small town of Browning, Mont., Cobell was familiar with the machinery of government in both her tribal world and in Washington, D.C.  What began for her as a suspicion -- a hunch that the federal government and mineral corporations had been stealing from the poor and giving to the rich -- soon became a certainty, leading her to make a formal complaint in federal district court. Once Cobell filed the suit in 1996, it quickly grew into one of the most complicated class-action lawsuits ever brought against the U.S. government. On one side were Uncle Sam's Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior.  On the other side were Cobell and 390,000 Indian plaintiffs who lived all over the West.

Cobell alleged that the Interior Department, in collusion with energy companies, had stolen mineral royalties owed to the Indians since the late 1800s. Accountants for the firm of Price-Waterhouse conducted an initial review of the government's books, or more accurately of such books as  the government could produce. In their 1998 report to federal district court Judge Royce Lamberth, the accountants pulled no punches.

Some $50 billion had gone missing from Indian Country accounts. In 2003, after twice citing Interior secretaries for contempt of court for chronic foot-dragging and malfeasance, Judge Lamberth, a west Texas judge appointed by Ronald Reagan, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. In words seldom heard from a federal bench, the judge called the Interior Department a "dinosaur ... the hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government..."

With the basic question of culpability settled, straightening out the accounting could begin in earnest. Or could it?  In 2005, at the urging of the second Bush White House, which had accused the judge of being "too harsh on the government," Lamberth was removed from the case by an appeals court in Washington, D.C.

Lamberth's replacement in 2008, Judge James Robertson, attempted to satisfy the Indians' claim by awarding them $455.6 million. Cobell scoffed at the figure and declared that Robertson's decision would not stand. "It's factually wrong and legally wrong, so we have to challenge it," she said. Cobell kept plugging and appealed the decision.

This January, the long-running case inched its way toward closure when Cobell and her lawyers, along with their new counterparts in the departments of Justice and Interior, announced that they'd arrived at a $3.4 billion settlement. The final paperwork may take months to get through Congress, but translated into real-world numbers, this would amount to a $1,000 payment to every plaintiff in the case.

Like Judge Lamberth, President Obama made it clear that he viewed this suit as a stain on the nation; he hailed the settlement as "an important step towards sincere reconciliation between the government and the Indians."

We'll see. After spending 20 years in the West dealing with white settlers and Indian chiefs, General William Tecumseh Sherman described Indian reservations as "a parcel of land set aside for the exclusive use of Indians (and) surrounded by thieves."

If you happen to live in the Indian communities of White Shield, Window Rock or Lame Deer, in 2010, you're left to ask: "Has anything changed in 100 years?" Craig Miner, author of The Corporation and the Indian, has an answer. He says that the stolen Indian trust funds provided one of the principle sources of capitalization for industries in the extractive sector during the 20th century. The long-term abuse of those funds, says Miner, raises the question of whether money held in trust for the protection of the Indians ought to have been used to exploit and impoverish them. Of course, that last bit was a lesson in understatement.

For the moment, Cobell has settled -- for pennies on the dollar -- the question of stolen mineral royalties and their (token) restitution.  But only fools, as Craig Miner, Judge Lamberth and General Sherman warn us, will be duped into thinking that the thieves have turned over a new leaf.

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a journalist in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire through Indian Territory.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Trust property land lease theft
ken bear chief
ken bear chief
Feb 16, 2010 04:26 PM
My family owns interests in 3,000 acres on our reservation. When my dad was living, he received approx. $2,000.00 per year for his lease income. We inherited his shares, and among the 7 heirs we receive approx. $60.00 each, for a total of $420.00 for the same leases my dad owned before his death. In twenty years I believe that more than $30,000 has been unpaid to us for our lease income. If, we are amoung the plaintiffs who will receive the $1,000 - $1,500 settlement, it will be a pitance for what we are owed for the past twenty years...not even considering the past 100 years of lease lost income owed to my family.
Cobell settlement offers more
Tom Schlosser
Tom Schlosser
May 08, 2010 09:35 AM
Besides the basic amounts of $1000-1500 offered for losses by IIM accounts that never had significant funds in them, there is a pro rata distribution of money to larger accounts based on the 10 highest years of income passing through the account. See[…]/2009.12.07_Settlement_Agreement.pdf
marty weiss
marty weiss
Feb 17, 2010 11:43 AM
The settlement, arrived at after years of testimony that exposed destruction of records and government obstruction, is about one cent on the dollar. The amount of oil, minerals and other land uses extracted from Indian lands since 1880 is astronomical and may never be adequately compensated. That the first Americans can survive this abuse, to me, is evidence of a people who will endure no matter what.
Unfortunately I cannot say the same for those who stole from them. The short-term vision of quarterly profit statements appears to foreshorten the survivability of corporate systems who need theft and government bailouts, tax breaks and inside deals to carry on. Even though they control the major media and the GOP, they cannot disguise the extent to which they extort, enslave, poison and pollute, and hold us hostage to our needs.It has been said before that they privatize the profits and socialize the losses.
Somehow I'm left with the expectation the Indians will be here after the thieves have moved to greener pastures. I'm writing a short essay on the zombies we have created and the voice which our own Supreme Court has given these undead legal persons, who never die, they just get bought out after they suck the life out of us.
If there's a lesson in this settlement, it appears to me to be in the success Indians have had with small groups in community, tribe and family despite the series of injustices they've endured. That is where humans have always survived and excelled. The last critters too big to fail were the dinosaurs. It is decidedly cautionary to me that most of us live by means of distant farms and tractor-trailers' journeys of thousands of miles. Buy local.
Cobell lawsuit
Bill eastwood
Bill eastwood
Feb 26, 2010 04:08 PM
The article mentions every government agency excedpt the one actually responsible for the mess, i.e., the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Why?