FROM THE ARCHIVE

Lost land base won't be included in accounting

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WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 8, 2003

In an attempt to assimilate American Indians, the federal government in 1887 began parceling out land to individual tribal members. Not only did the policy fail to achieve its goal, it resulted in the loss of 90 million acres of the Indian estate, mostly under questionable circumstances.

Since 1934, tribes have sought to reclaim their original holdings. The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), passed that year, authorizes the Department of Interior to take land into trust on behalf of Indian beneficiaries, a slow-moving and often controversial process that hasn't worked too well either -- so far, only 5 million acres of land has been restored to Indian control.

That raises a key question as tribes and individual Indians seek an historical accounting of their funds and trust assets: What happened to all those millions of acres of land?

Bert T. Edwards, a former Arthur Andersen partner who is the chief architect of the Bush administration's accounting plan, was asked just that last month. "I have no idea what happened," he responded during December 18 deposition.

"A lot of land got taken from the Indians one way or the other," he also testified. "There's no question about that."

But because the government doesn't intend to account for the underlying assets owned by about 260,000 existing Indian beneficiaries, most won't ever know the real answer. Although Edwards in his testimony said proceeds from any sales -- legal or otherwise -- of trust land should be part of the undertaking, the Interior on Monday released a plan that only looks at balances in the accounts.

The entire initiative is expected to cost $335 million over five years and will result in an account balance that is "99 percent" accurate. "Interior is ready, willing and able to provide an historical accounting to account holders," Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles said in a statement yesterday.

According to the plaintiffs in the Indian trust fund suit, about 54 million acres of land was allotted to individual Indians. Today, though, there are only 11 million of those still held in trust.

Ross Swimmer, a former assistant secretary for Indians affairs, told a Congressional committee last year that the land was stolen by opportunists, non-Indians and "unscrupulous courts." "They took advantage," he said in March 2002.

The department argues that tracing the details of every trust-related transaction is too costly. Its new approach, which includes a statistical sampling, limits the effort in a number of ways to cut down the workload.

Finding out what happened to the acreage isn't as hard a task as one might think. The Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a Minnesota-based organization that was recently awarded a multi-year, $20 million grant to help keep the Indian estate intact, has documented land ownership back to the original allotments made on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

Dennis Gingold, an attorney for the Indian beneficiaries, argues that a full effort "is doable with a reasonable amount of money." "You start with the original allotments," he said. "You have to trace it forwards and backwards."

Money for the proposal will be announced next month when President Bush unveils his fiscal year 2003 budget. The numbers are being kept under wraps by department officials but a draft document included $60 million for reconciliation efforts of individual and tribal trust accounts.

Relevant Documents:
DOI: Historical Accounting Plan | Plaintiffs: Accounting Plan

Relevant Links:
Office of Comptroller Currency, Department of Treasury - http://www.occ.treas.gov
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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