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Indian trust is anything but


When I was a girl, the grownups on our reservation, the Blackfeet Indian Nation in Montana, complained about their troubles with the individual Indian trust. It was a mess.

Royalties for allowing oil and gas, grazing and logging on Indian-owned lands were collected by the Interior Department. The funds were held by the Treasury Department, and then they were supposed to be paid to the individual Indian trust beneficiaries, including my parents. It had been that way since the 1880s.

But the payments were erratic - $1 one time, $150 the next or sometimes nothing - and no one knew what the amounts were based on. The Bureau of Indian Affairs agent had no explanation. Money was scarce on the reservation, but you were more likely to find a $100 bill on the street than get a straight answer about the trust.

In 1996, I and other Indian co-plaintiffs sued the secretaries of Interior and Treasury to account for the money. I had left the reservation, attended college, returned home, become treasurer for the Blackfeet Nation and helped start the Blackfeet National Bank in Browning, Mont. I had an accounting background and I kept chasing after answers about the mysteries of the trust, working my way up the chain of command.

What I got from the BIA, Interior, Treasury and the Justice Department were patronizing pats on the head. Now, in a fourth-floor courtroom in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the latest chapter in our class-action lawsuit is playing out. This is a contempt trial for Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb. Norton has not joined us in the courtroom yet, but we meet daily with Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, a newcomer to Indian trust issues. Griles has been getting an earful, an on-the-spot education in government malfeasance.

Our five-and-a-half-year legal battle has dug up a mountain of information about what's gone wrong for 120 years with the Individual Indian Monies (IIM) trust. Interior and Treasury have admitted in court that they do not know and have no way of knowing the correct account balances for 500,000 beneficiaries. Records for the trust, which takes in $500 million a year in revenues from Indian lands west of the Mississippi, have largely been lost or destroyed.

After our stunning victory in December 1999 in the first phase of the case, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered Interior and Treasury to institute reforms and provide the trust beneficiaries with an historical accounting of "all funds." Court testimony this December showed that Interior has responded with turf battles, bureaucratic feuding, indifference, sheer incompetence and a shameful record of lying to the court about any progress in fixing the problem.

On the witness stand recently was Thomas M. Thompson, a senior trust official who, to his credit, has remained credible with the court. Hour after hour, Thompson confirmed the accuracy of the findings of a court-appointed investigator assigned to assess Interior's performance. His testimony showed that for the last 14 months, Interior dragged its feet, hoping Judge Lamberth would be reversed on appeal. He was upheld. Interior planned to spend at least $17 million on a statistical sampling scheme that would be cheaper and easier than a real accounting, but which the department knew did not comply with the judge's order. Interior has spent more than $30 million on a new trust-accounting computer system that does not work. Quarterly reports required by the judge are riddled with falsehoods, including those submitted by Norton. Computer security for IIM trust accounting data is nonexistent; we now know hackers can get in with ease.

Neither Norton nor her predecessor did anything about it; both failed to inform the court of the problem. Norton and her aides have been aided and abetted in the foot-dragging and lying by attorneys from the Justice Department and the Solicitor's Office at Interior.

As his testimony wound up, Thompson noted that he and his boss, Special Trustee Thomas Slonaker, had finally stopped verifying the truthfulness of Norton's quarterly reports to Judge Lamberth. "I learned that 'verify' had legal significance, representing that certain actions had been taken," he said. "Mr. Slonaker and I knew that was not the case."

We, the Indian plaintiffs, have asked the court to appoint an independent receiver who will take charge of the trust. That is the only way true reform will occur. If Norton is held in contempt, as we expect, it will free the judge's hands to order just that. Receivership would set the stage for a just financial settlement approved by the court. The trust could then move forward, with professional accounting and accurate balances.

And I will feel that I have won two things in honor of my parents and all Native peoples - justice - and some answers.

Elouise Cobell is a banker for the Blackfeet Indian Nation in Browning, Mont., and lead plaintiff in Cobell vs. Norton, class-action litigation to reform the Individual Indian Monies Trust.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Elouise Cobell

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 [email protected].