Next President Must Fix Indian Trust Fiasco    

by Editorial Board
Albuquerque Journal 
Alt. Source: Indian Trust 
14 October 2004

Lawyers representing half a million American Indians in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government paid a visit to Navajo country last week.

Their 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.

Beyond 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.

"It's 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."

His 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 board.

Gingold 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.

The 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.

But the accounts were mismanaged on a grand scale. The amount owed to account holders and their heirs may total $40 billion.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth has already ruled that the government breached its trust obligations and ordered an overhaul of the system.

A trial 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.

No one 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.

Whoever 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.  



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.