A slate of key leaders, including Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the billion-dollar Indian trust fund lawsuit, will appear before a Senate committee today and pledge their support for an improved trust reform bill.
The unity between the Cobell plaintiffs, tribal leaders and major Indian organizations threatened to break apart last week after the introduction of the bill. Cobell and Tex Hall, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, had expressed disappointment with several provisions in legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota).
The criticism spurred a lengthy conference call Friday afternoon in which some participants criticized
the Cobell litigation team for comments Cobell made to Native reporter Jodi Rave Lee. "I want to say some strong things like: This is a disaster. Let's kill it," Cobell was quoted as saying. "But it will come back to haunt us."
The story, which only appeared in small number of regional media outlets, also prompted Senate staff to send word to the Cobell team of McCain's apparent dissatisfaction, according to sources familiar with the conversation. One person said the move was aimed at intimidating the plaintiffs into backtracking.
But Cobell and other key witnesses today will remain firm in their commitment to the principles they developed during four months of rigorous work in Indian Country. Cobell and Hall, in public statements and in testimony submitted to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, say they hope to work with McCain and Dorgan to improve the bill.
"I deeply appreciate the effort that the two Senators have put into this and now I look forward to working with them and their staff on making the changes to the bill so that it more accurately
reflects the views of Indian tribes as set forth in the 50 principles," Hall said last week.
The principles were developed in response to a challenge McCain, the chairman of the committee,
issued earlier this year to give trust reform "one good shot" for the 109th Congress in 2005 and 2006. "If it looks like we're not getting anywhere," he said at a hearing in March, "then I will leave that task to future Congresses and the courts."
Indian leaders took McCain's words seriously and developed consensus on a wide range of issues, from settlement to fractionation. But when the bill was introduced on Wednesday, July 20, there
were few provisions they recognized. Dorgan, the vice chairman of the committee, acknowledged it was not "perfect."
Despite the disappointment, some provisions in the bill are being welcomed in Indian Country. They include the elimination of the Office of Special Trustee and the creation of an Under Secretary for Indian Affairs, two ideas previously embraced by the joint tribal-federal task force on trust reform.
Also welcomed is the provision to ensure any settlement for the Cobell v. Norton case comes from the Claims Judgment Fund and not federal appropriations for Indian programs. The bill also recognizes that a settlement could be in the billions although no specific amount is specified
and McCain has questioned the $27.5 billion proposal laid out in the principles.
Other issues to be addressed today include the reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and its dwindling budget. Tribal leaders have complained that the Bush administration is financing trust reform by taking money from education, social services and other reservation programs.
Also testifying today will be Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department. He has said a settlement of Cobell should run in the "very low millions" and not billions.
"We haven't found any systemic errors or faults in the system," Cason said during a July 6 appearance on the C-SPAN program Washington Journal. "We have found a few errors.
They tend to be small. ... They're netting out pretty close to zero."
The hearing starts at 10am and will be broadcast on the Internet. A video link can be accessed at
PDF: Elouise Cobell Testimony
(July 26, 2005)
Senate Documents:John McCain Statement
Byron Dorgan Statement
| Full Text of Bill as Introduced
Relevant Documents: Trust
Reform and Cobell Settlement Workgroup Principles for Legislation
official: Native trust fund accounts vulnerable
(The Lincoln Journal Star
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
Trust Fund Monitoring Association - http://www.itmatrustfunds.org