May 19, 2005

Losing (or stealing) Native American trust

For over a century, the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust has snatched American Indians' rightful profits by pinching funds from destitute Native nations. An eight-year lawsuit, Cobell v. Norton, aims to make the government pay what they rightfully owe, but, surprise, surprise, the feds can't even account for the missing funds, and are dragging their feet all the way to the bank. It's time the government dealt honestly with American Indian nations—if only to try something new.

In the 1880s, the IIM trust was established to collect funds owed to Native peoples for the use of their lands, initiated by the Dawes Act. The act broke up tribal territory into individually owned 80-to-160-acre parcels at the behest of land-hungry settlers, and for the purposes of so-called "detribalization." To "civilize" them via private property, individual American Indians were given "beneficial ownership" of the plots that, as a sovereign nation, were rightfully theirs; meanwhile, as the parcels' "trustee," the government was supposed to manage and distribute revenues collected from the lands back to the Indians who owned them.

Unsurprisingly, the system benefited only the feds. As profits from mining, forestry, and gas extraction continue to pour into IIM, American Indians have seen little of the cash. Under the Bush administration, for instance, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved lowball deals for oil pipelines on Native property in New Mexico—American Indian recipients got $25 to $40 per rod (a unit for measuring pipeline) while private landowners received anywhere from $140 to $575 per rod. Mishandling of Indian trust funds, however, remains a bipartisan effort: Bill Clinton's Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, was the first defendant in the Cobell litigation, and was held in contempt of court for stonewalling on court-ordered records.

"It would be difficult to find a more historically mismanaged federal program than the IIM trust," reads Cobell v. Babbitt, a recent court decision on the subject. The government isn't even sure how many accounts exist, let alone the amount of cash due to each. What's more, the situation appears worse than a case of simple bureaucratic incompetence. In May 1999, the U.S. Treasury confessed to destroying 162 boxes of relevant documents on the case, for which they were chastised by a court-appointed Special Master the following December. The Treasury Department clearly took this admonishment to heart when they destroyed a second crop of documents less than a year later.

Until Cobell v. Norton is resolved, Indians won't see a penny of the money owed them and their nations—a figure estimated to be in the billions. And it looks like the end is nowhere in sight for the suit's 500,000 plaintiffs. The government has yet to even account for the stolen funds, never mind compensating the plaintiffs. The trust funds are much needed in Native communities, where poverty rates hover around 25 percent.

In 1994, Oklahoma Congressman Mike Synar remarked, "If this was done in the Social Security system, my colleagues, we would have had a war." The official policy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, then, is war on American Indian communities. In other words: business as usual.