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Know the West

Sometimes you have to fight

  I may not be a fan of George Bush's foreign policy, but I fully agree with one point the president repeatedly made in the months before the Iraq war. The president told us that "sometimes you have to fight."

As Mr. Bush explained, when the other guy just doesn't get it, he needs a punch in the stomach.

That's just the way a group of American Indians have been feeling for almost seven years in a federal court in Washington. We've been punching away at Uncle Sam, determined to get a full accounting of the monies that the federal government should have been placing in trust accounts for us for more than 116 years.

Billions of dollars -- money that belongs to some of the nation's poorest people -- have been diverted or lost from our accounts. After repeated victories in the courts, we're getting close to securing that accounting. But to our surprise, some lawmakers in the nation's capital are now demanding we settle our dispute with the federal government outside the courtroom.

In an April 6 letter to our lawyers and Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Attorney General John Ashcroft, Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, urged us to seek mediation.

But the truth is, we've tried to reach an out-of-court settlement with the government before, and failed. The Bush administration's negotiators have refused to be realistic about what it will take to make our accounts whole. So our battle continues in the federal courts in Washington.

I was back in Courtroom 21 recently, sitting in for the latest phase of our long-running lawsuit. I left fighting mad.

Paul M. Homan, a nationally recognized banking expert, was to testify about the weaknesses in the government's plan to reform the badly broken Indian trust system. There's no doubt that Homan, the former president of a major bank in Washington, knows what he is talking about when it comes to trust operations. He was the chief examiner of federal banks for the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency for years.

He personally supervised the closing of 22 national banks when they became insolvent, and when he left government service, he supervised the rehabilitation of several large banks that were teetering on the brink of failure.

Equally important, he was the first person named special trustee for the Indian trust accounts, overseeing the Interior Department's handling of the accounts for nearly three years. President Bill Clinton selected him to handle that job, and he did it with such candor that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt finally fired him.

Now, you'd think that Homan would be just the expert that a Republican administration favored to talk about the ills in the Indian trust accounts. But no, the Bush administration's Justice Department did everything it could to disqualify Homan from testifying as the expert witness he clearly is.

Once Judge Royce Lamberth rejected those arguments, the government continued to question every statement Homan made about the problems of the trust.

Homan proved a powerful witness, describing the administration's plans to resolve the trust problems as "a waste of time." Instead of trying once again to repair the present system, Homan advocated moving the trust operations out of the Interior Department and placing them under a court-appointed receiver.

The flap over Homan's testimony llustrates why our 6-year fight over Indian trust reform is a battle worth fighting. We're tired of having federal officials, whether Democrats or Republicans, attempt to silence those who would tell the truth about the horrible job that the federal government has done taking care of our money.

As both Sens. Campbell and Inouye put it in their letter: "Since at least the late1980s, the Congress, the Executive and the Indian tribes have understood that the Indian trust system is broken and badly in need of repair."

Note their words: Congress and the Executive, Democratic and Republican administrations -- all have failed Indian trust-account holders. All we have ever wanted is what a federal judge and a federal appeals court have said we are entitled to: a full accounting of our money.

It's hardly a novel or a radical idea. It's what every bank and every trust company in the nation has to give its clients. When the children of America's first citizens cannot get such a basic request, then something is wrong with our government.

As President Bush should understand: That’s why we fight.

Elouise Cobell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana, and lead plaintiff in the Indian trust-fund lawsuit against the Interior Department.