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USA: The Great American Land Row

by Chris SummersBBC News Online
August 25th, 2003

American Indians are embroiled in a $137bn lawsuit with the US Government over land royalties. The saga, which has been going on for seven years, rests on a judge's decision, which is expected shortly.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an arm of the US Department of the Interior, is being sued in a class action on behalf of 280,000 American Indians. The plaintiff, Eloise Cobell, a 56-year-old Blackfeet Indian from Browning, Montana, claims billions went missing because records were not kept properly and trusts were pilfered by the US Government.

The dispute dates back to the 1887 Dawes Act, which seized Indian land - much of it rich in natural resources - and gave it to white-owned companies to exploit.

The idea was for them to be "compensated" in perpetuity for the use of their land.

The author of the Act claimed land ownership would "civilise" the Indians, but disputes arose almost immediately.

To be civilised wear civilised clothes, cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey and own property. Congressman Henry Dawes Author of Dawes Act 1887 Mrs Cobell, a trained accountant, told BBC News Online: "I remember, as a child, hearing people complaining about not getting their cheques. They would go to the BIA office to complain and they'd be treated like dirt." She launched the class action in 1996 and has already ruffled some very illustrious feathers.

Held in contempt

In 1999 a judge examining the case cited two of President Clinton's Cabinet Secretaries, Bruce Babbitt and Robert Rubin, for contempt because of their departments' failure to produce key documents.

Then in 2002 Judge Royce Lamberth found President Bush's Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, in contempt for her failure to comply with earlier court orders.

Now, after a 44-day trial, Judge Lamberth is considering two options.

He could accept the BIA's plan for accounting of the money in the trust accounts or he could agree to a far more radical approach suggested by Mrs Cobell's team. Washington did not believe the Indians capable of exploiting the land themselves.

Mrs Cobell said: "They said we were stupid, incompetent and dumb and couldn't run our own financial affairs. They said they would manage it to the highest fiduciary standards."

But she said that in the intervening years the records of these accounts, known as the Individual Indian Money (IIM) Trusts, became shambolic.

The federal authorities lost track of the account holders and destroyed or mislaid records, said Mrs Cobell.

As a result hundreds of thousands of Native Americans allegedly never got money which was owed to them.

Mrs Cobell, and the team of lawyers and accountants working for her, said the trusts had not been audited since 1887 and she estimated up to $137bn had gone missing.

Some of the tribes affected Cherokee (Oklahoma) Sioux/Lakota (South Dakota) Navajo (Utah) Blackfeet (Montana) Cheyenne (South Dakota) Arapaho (Wyoming) Chippewa/Ojibwa (Minnesota) Nez Perce/Nimi'ipuu (Idaho) She said some of the Indian families relied on the money to pay their grocery bills. Mrs Cobell said the government tightly regulated privately-run trust funds but added: "When the shoe is on the other foot they don't have to comply with any law. They have run our trusts like a bank totally out of control.

"This is worse than Enron or WorldCom. It's the biggest scandal since the Teapot Dome affair in the 1920s."

Mrs Cobell said: "It's ironic that the US Government, which has been beating up on the Swiss over Jewish money from the 1940s, was responsible for perpetrating an even bigger outrage on the Indians."

She is hoping, with 2004 being an election year, Indians in several key swing states - such as Nevada, Arizona and Montana - can bring pressure to bear on the Bush administration to settle the dispute and agree for the government to pay the missing money.

But BIA spokesman Dan DuBray said the figures given by the plaintiff were "fanciful" and he said the case had been "infected with hyperbole and bad feeling".

Mr DuBray, whose own father is a Sioux with an IIM account of his own, said if the judge agreed to the plaintiff's plan it would take 10 years and cost $2.4bn to check all transactions.

He said this type of "archaeological accounting" would not benefit those in Indian country, some of whose IIM accounts earned only a few cents a year.

American Indian decline In 1492 it is estimated there were six million Indians in the territory of what became the United States. By 1900, decimated by disease, starvation and war, that number had fallen to 237,000 Mr DuBray said: "There is no question there is hundreds of years of poor history between the government and the Indians. But this case is not to do with Wounded Knee or the Trail of Tears." He said: "The plaintiffs have suggested that we used Indian trust money to pay off the national debt, and to bail out Chrysler in the 1970s. But there is no truth to any of these grandiose allegations."

Vernon Bellecourt, the director of international affairs with the American Indian Movement, said they backed Mrs Cobell's lawsuit and added: "It's outrageous that this has been allowed to happen."

Speaking from a sun dance ceremony in Montana, Mr Bellecourt told BBC News Online: "We have been the victims of an American holocaust."

"They took our land away - sacred land, like the Black Hills (in South Dakota) - and now we find out they have stolen our money."

History of the dispute
1877: Battle of the Little Big Horn, followed by defeat of Crazy Horse and end of Indian Wars
1887: Dawes Act leads to land being parcelled up and sold off
1996: Eloise Cobell launches lawsuit, claiming the trusts have been mismanaged
2002: The Department of the Interior is ordered to account for all the money
2003: Judge will decide whose accounting plan to adopt

Under the Act the land was divided into plots of between 160 and 180 acres. Each Indian family was assigned a parcel of land, which was alien to their culture in which all land belonged to the tribe.


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