FROM THE ARCHIVE

Bush urged to settle Indian trust fund dispute

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 24, 2002

Buoyed by a recent Congressional victory, Indian Country advocates on Tuesday called on the Bush administration to settle the bitter and long-running Indian trust fund lawsuit.

Appearing on the nationally broadcast radio program Native America Calling, Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the six-year-old case, said President Bush needs to get involved. "I am sure we're ready to sit down if we've got the proper people in place," she said.

"I think it's going to take the top people to make the decisions we need to make," she added. "We need [Attorney General John] Ashcroft at the table. We need the President at the table."

Cobell's words came on the heels of an overwhelming vote in the House last week. By a 2-to-1 margin, lawmakers rejected an attempt to limit an historical accounting, a key trust responsibility, owed to more than 500,000 American Indians.

"This was a frontal attack on Indian rights," Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, said on the show. The bipartisan group of lawmakers led the charge against an accounting restriction contained in an appropriations bill.

"It was, in effect, legalizing the malfeasance, misfeasance, the nonfeasance of the Interior Department and I think in many instances, it was legalizing actual theft from Indians," he added.

Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney who represents the Indian beneficiaries, said the vote sent a clear message to the federal officials involved. "The only way to ultimately resolve this," he said, "is to come to the table in good faith and discuss settlement, something they have not done to date."

Putting a price tag on the debacle, is of course in dispute. Harper and Cobell cited their own research which put the total amount of money derived from Indian lands since 1887, the inception of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust, at greater than $100 billion.

Numerous attempts to settle, however, have failed, most recently with the Bush administration at the end of last year. Also, Interior officials have presented conflicting views.

"The Department of the Interior has not placed a dollar value on the amount of the problems that have come from the mismanagement," said Secretary Gale Norton on C-SPAN in March.

Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, when asked during an interview with Sam Donaldson on ABC News in February, said he couldn't dispute Cobell's high dollar figure. "Because we can't do an accounting, I can't refute that," he said.

Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles offered the most pointed criticism of Cobell's claims during a House hearing in March. "All you do is say, 'How many billions of dollars came in and you can't account for it going out to me, that's what you owe to me,'" he said.

"What we're trying to accomplish at this point is . . . show that the money came in, the money went out," he said, describing the Interior's attempt to perform an historical accounting.

According to Harper, a settlement would be "fair" to all parties. He warned that a court-ordered correction, or restatement, of the accounts would be "very large" and more costly.

"It would behoove the Interior Department to sit down . . . as equals and try to move towards a settlement," agreed Kildee, who questioned why the U.S. would provide $16 billion in aid to foreign nations annually yet resists "justice" for Native Americans.

Phase two of the case, which has not been scheduled by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, the presiding judge, would deal with the restatement of the accounts. But Cobell said now is the time to act to prevent additional taxpayer dollars from being used to fight Indian rights.

"Individual Indian people are owed an awful lot of money from 1887 forward," Cobell said.

Relevant Links:
Office of Historical Trust Fund Accounting - http://www.doi.gov/ohta
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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