Trust fund update
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AUGUST 7, 2000

The case of Cobell v. Babbitt, the largest class-action lawsuit in history, has been a monumental victory for American Indians in the United States.

Over 500,000 Native Americans are being represented in the lawsuit, which was brought to national attention by Elouise Cobell, Blackfeet Nation of Montana, and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) of Colorado. As much a $1 billion could be at stake, once the Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts are sorted out.

Through litigation, the team has been able to force the Department of Interior and the Department of Treasury into admitting what many have believed all along. The Indian trust funds has been broken and mismanaged for over 100 years.

As part of a series of decisions, a federal judge required the two departments to maintain control over the trust fund accounts for five more years. More importantly, the judge required them to present quarterly reports detailing the status, and progress, if any, regarding the government's attempt to fix the broken system.

Two reports have been issued so far. One covers June of 1999, when the first trial began, to the end of January. The second covers February to the end of May of 2000.

The reports don't detail any progress for which the government could celebrate, according to Cobell. Earlier this month, Cobell spoke about the trust fund on Native America Calling.

"Through those reports, and those are public information, we find out a lot," said Cobell. "We find out that some of the statements that they [the government] made while they were in trial were not really accurate."

One of the most important steps the government has taken, however, is ensuring that paperwork and other documents aren't destroyed. The Department of Treasury employees were discovered to have destroyed evidence and potential evidence despite being ordered to keep all records.

Since then, the government and the National Archives and Records Administration are now working closely together to ensure the retention of valuable documents. Also, more than 2 million documents have scanned and indexed for preservation.

A backlog of records in the Rocky Mountain Region of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was also reduced. The majority of the accounts represent Native Americans in the Western states.

Also, a new computer system which the government hopes to help maintain accurate land ownership, lease, billing, and other financial data has been put into place. Over 269,000 IIM and trust fund accounts held by individual tribes have been converted to the new system.

More funding will go to help the government fix the trust system as well. The Interior budget for the year 2001 contains a $12.5 million increase for the Office of Special Trustee.

The second phase of the trust fund trial still has yet to occur. It will focus on restating the value of the IIM accounts.

Relevant Links:
Trust Management Improvement Project, BIA -
The Native American Rights Fund -
Financial Management - BIA's Tribal Trust Fund Account Reconciliation Results, GAO Report
Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians -

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