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Elouise Cobell: Justice for Indian trust fund

Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana is the lead plaintiff in the Indian Indian Money (IIM) trust fund lawsuit.

On September 15, attorneys for the plaintiffs and defendants in Cobell v. Norton argued the appeal of what has become known as �Trial 1.5�� one of four trials that American Indian plaintiffs have won in the largest case ever brought against the United States government. The government had appealed the plaintiffs� September 2003 trial victory, arguing that the district court judge in the case overstepped his bounds in requiring the government to comply with its trust duties, including the obligation to provide a complete accounting of the trust assets belonging to individual Indians. Such assets include, of course, the royalties from the sale of oil, gas, timber and other resources from Indian land.

In response to a question from the three-judge panel, a government attorney stated that the decision of the district court must be overturned because of the costs involved with accounting for more than 100 years of government malfeasance would be too much to bear.

One of the judges interrupted the government attorney. �For numerous decades,� the judge declared, the Department of the Interior had not done what it was supposed to do as Trustee delegate. The judge then asked: that there are costs involved now shouldn�t surprise anyone, should it?

This exchange gets to the heart of the historic and continuing wrong in this case. There have been close to 30 Secretaries of the Interior across 22 different administrations since the Individual Indian Trust was established in 1887. Each Secretary of the Interior has betrayed his or her fiduciary responsibility to Individual Indian landowners. Every single one.

So as you head to the polls this November, I urge all of us to think about this. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is a justice issue. And regardless of party, the candidates we all vote for ought to commit to a fair and just resolution in the Indian Trust litigation at the top of their platform.

Indeed, justice for the more than 500,000 plaintiffs in Cobell v. Norton is a bipartisan issue if there ever was one. Our most ardent supporters are on both sides of the aisle. These champions include Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a Republican from California and Ranking Member Nick Rahall, a Democrat from West Virginia, both of whom have been tireless in their support for bringing justice to individual Indian landowners after 100 years of government malfeasance. Joining them are other key Republican congressman like J.D. Hayworth and Rick Renzi of Arizona, as well as Oklahoman, Tom Cole. On the Democratic side, Dale Kildee of Michigan and Brad Carson of Oklahoma have been stalwarts on these issues. In the Senate, we have extraordinary support from Democrat Tom Daschle and Daniel Inouye and Republicans John McCain and Craig Thomas.

Each of these members of Congress have done all they can to ensure that justice so long delayed is not now denied.

And why shouldn�t they? Our unremarkable expectation and desire is to have what all other trust beneficiaries across this country take for granted: A trustee that complies with their fundamental fiduciary obligations. We didn�t ask for this trust system, it was imposed without our consent; what we ask for now is merely accountability. That should not be and we have never considered it a partisan issue.

In this critical election, ask this of all your candidates. From those in Congress to the President: how will you end this blight upon this great country�s history? How will you bring justice to those who have struggled so long without? How will you settle the individual Indian trust case?

And, for those candidates running for re-election, �What have you done to bring justice to this now-eight-year-old case?�

The answer to these questions will tell you a lot more about your candidates than any party label ever could.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -

Related Stories:
Editorial: The continuing shame of the trust fund (9/27)
Judges grill Bush lawyer in trust fund case (9/16)
Appeals court takes on Cobell trust fund case (9/15)