by Editorial Board
Alt. Source: Indian
14 October 2004
representing half a million American Indians in a
class-action lawsuit against the federal government paid
a visit to Navajo country last week.
case, Cobell v. Norton, seeks to untangle the monumental disgrace
that the federal government's trust obligation to American Indians
has become. The litigation aims to force the government to repay
those who have been cheated, and equally significant, reform the
system for good.
rallying the Nageezi beneficiaries who stand to collect if this
8-year-old lawsuit ultimately succeeds, lead lawyer Dennis Gingold
and co-counsel Keith Harper carried with them a political message.
time to be warriors again," Gingold told the chapter house
audience. "Put on your war paint and get out and vote out the
people who are screwing you."
not-so-subtle target: President Bush. Bush's alleged offense? His
administration -- and particularly Interior Secretary Gale Norton
-- has failed to achieve a just resolution to the pending case,
and according to both attorneys, has made matters worse across the
is entitled to his partisan views, but Bush inherited the trust
fiasco, the roots of which extend back to the late 1800s. The
scale of the fiasco is the paramount offense -- one that demands
both a settlement and sweeping reform.
federal government took legal title to many parcels of Indian land
after some reservations were broken up in the 1880s. The
government was legally bound to manage trust accounts, collecting
and disbursing revenue generated from mining, oil and gas, timber
or other uses.
accounts were mismanaged on a grand scale. The amount owed to
account holders and their heirs may total $40 billion.
District Judge Royce Lamberth has already ruled that the
government breached its trust obligations and ordered an overhaul
of the system.
that would finally account for the money as best as possible has
yet to be scheduled. In the meantime, a court-appointed special
master is overseeing trust documentation, and a monitor is charged
with reporting back to the court on the status of reform.
administration created this problem. But many administrations and
many Congresses have been content to let it fester and to shoulder
off responsibility for oversight and reform on the courts. That is
hardly the best forum or, as the pace of this 8-year-old,
unresolved case indicates, the most efficient.
takes office next year should resolve to pursue reform, preferably
one that gives tribes the option of assuming this obligation from
a government that has made mockery of the notion of trust.