Indian trust reform is a top priority at the Department of the Interior

By Ross Swimmer

A recent Viewpoints article in your paper [“Losing (or Stealing) Native American Trust,” 5/19/05], both misstated the issues involved in the Cobell v. Norton litigation and failed to explain the tremendous reform efforts undertaken by Indian Affairs and other staff at the Department of the Interior.

The Department of the Interior has responsibility for the largest land trust in the U.S. Today, the Indian Trust consists of approximately 56 million acres of land. More than 10 million acres belong to individual Indians and nearly 46 million acres are held in trust for Indian tribes. Interior manages more than 100,000 leases on these lands. Funds from leasing, use permits, land sales, and interest, totaling approximately $205 million per year, are collected and disbursed to 245,000 Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts. About $414 million is collected each year and disbursed to 1,400 tribal accounts for 300-plus tribes. In addition, the trust manages approximately $3 billion in tribal funds and $400 million in individual Indian funds. Currently we reconcile cash on a daily basis and financial assets on a monthly basis, and we provide beneficiaries with quarterly statements of financial transactions. The management of the Indian Trust, at an estimated cost of $500 million per year, is paid for by money appropriated to Interior by Congress.

Staff members at Interior have been making major strides in trust reform efforts since the passage of the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994. The litigation, filed in 1996, has brought some important attention to the pressing issues of trust reform. The lawsuit focuses on the collecting, recording, and disbursing of funds for individual Indian account holders. Interior has been working on the historical accounting effort in accordance with a plan submitted to the D.C. District Court in 2003 by the Office of Historical Trust Accounting (OHTA).

OHTA has reconciled income-based accounts and accounts that are created on behalf of individuals who share in proceeds from legal judgments or other per capita distributions. To date, OHTA has reconciled more than 40,000 judgment accounts with balances totaling more than $54 million, and reconciled 7,500 per capita accounts with balances totaling more than $21.9 million. By the end of fiscal year 2005, OHTA will have reconciled more than 50,000 judgment accounts and 10,000 per capita accounts. Thousands of account transactions that are based on income from the use of individual Indian allotments have also been reconciled, and OHTA is recalculating interest for all these accounts. While some accounting errors have been found, so far they have been minor—less than half of one percent—and not indicative of systematic accounting failure. There is more accounting to be done and we will continue our efforts to reconcile accounts with historic records. If the present error rate holds, then the losses may be in the millions of dollars—far less than the billions some have suggested. The cost of performing this accounting is now in excess of $100 million. In the fiscal year 2006 budget, Interior has requested an additional $135 million from Congress for historical accounting efforts.

Indian Affairs staff and others at Interior continue to work on major reform efforts for individual Indian beneficiaries and tribes. For instance, we opened the American Indian Records Repository in Lenexa, Kansas, in partnership with the National Archives and Records Administration. The repository is a state-of-the-art storage facility to safeguard Indian records for their historic value and use by future generations. More than 110,000 boxes of Indian records containing more than 200 million pages have been electronically indexed and relocated to this repository—and our work continues. While some records have been lost, most were retained because of “do not destroy” orders by the Indian Land Claims Commission in the early 1950s that are still in place.

The Department of the Interior recognizes its fiduciary responsibility to the Indian Trust, and continues to implement trust reforms as guided by the Fiduciary Trust Model, a business management plan that Interior developed over the last few years, that was officially adopted in the fall of 2004. In the last year, the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) opened the first one-stop toll-free information center for trust beneficiaries and placed highly trained staff in the field to serve as the first point-of-contact for Indian Trust beneficiaries. OST is also implementing improved information technology systems across the country and a secure lockbox system for lease collections. As well, trust officers in the field are hard at work trying to locate account holders whose whereabouts are unknown (see I am proud to work with leaders throughout Indian Country on important trust reform efforts. Thank you for the opportunity to clarify these matters.

Ross Swimmer is a Special Trustee for American Indians in the U.S. Department of the Interior.