In the whispering grasslands of North Dakota, Tex Hall's family has grazed cattle for four generations. More than a century ago, most of their land was among Indian acreage taken by the U.S. government, held in trust and leased to strangers. When Hall was a boy, his parents, members of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara tribes, would await the arrival of a U.S. Treasury check each December.
Sometimes the check was for $5,000. The next year, perhaps $4,000. Another year, another sum. His mother wondered why the amounts varied. The yellow government envelope contained no explanation.
In North Dakota, Indian Tex Hall is one of thousands trying to track missing payments.
(Will Kincaid - AP)
His father would call the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "We'll get back to you," the local officials said. But they never did. The frustration would mount. "I want an accounting!" his father would shout, startling his eight children.
Now the parents are dead, and, come December, it is Hall and his remaining six brothers and sisters who await the checks. The amounts still vary, and the Halls still have no explanation. They are among hundreds of thousands of Indians in the West whose lands were taken into government trust -- and now lie at the center of one of the most intractable accounting messes in U.S. history.
For more than a century, ranchers, miners and loggers have contracted with the government to harvest timber, graze cattle and extract oil, gas and minerals from Indian land; the money paid the government is supposed to be forwarded to each landowner. But from the beginning, the government paid little attention to which landowner was owed what. Over time, as Indians died and land was divided among heirs, the accounting problems grew exponentially. Tribes and individuals have never been sure they were getting their due.
"To this day, when I get my check there is nothing that shows what tract of land it's for," said Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians. "Isn't that crazy?"
Congress has tried to fix the system and failed. Accounting firm Arthur Andersen was paid $20 million in the early 1990s to reconcile tribal accountsand failed. The Interior Department, which oversees the BIA, tried to fix the system. It, too, failed and ended up in court with individual account holders. Evidence made it clear that relevant documents were shredded and e-mails deleted. Already, two Clinton Cabinet members have been found in contempt of court, and now Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and 40 deputies face contempt charges.
That case -- one of the largest class action lawsuits in history in terms of plaintiffs -- was filed six years ago to secure a reckoning of 300,000 accounts belonging to individual Native Americans. In separate litigation, tribesare seeking similar treatment for about 1,400 tribal accounts.
The government, the Native Americans contend, still cannot provide an accurate balance sheet for a single one.
"We call this the Indian Enron case," Hall said. Even that may fail to capture the scope of an accounting disaster that has shaped the lives and lands of Indians since the 1820s.
Plaintiffs in the class action, led by Elouise Cobell, treasurer of the Blackfeet Indians in Montana, say they are owed at least $10 billion. U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth has already found the government breached its fiduciary duty to the Indians; he is considering how the system might be repaired and will later determine damages.
At least 18 tribal suits were filed in January and February, claiming billions of dollars in damages and seeking an accounting of their own. But there is no consensus on how to accomplish either an accounting dating back more than a century or a long-term fix for the future -- or even a settlement.
Norton wants to create an agency to overhaul the trust fund -- the Bureau of Indian Trust Asset Management (BITAM). Cobell wants the judge to appoint an independent receiver, which would focus solely on the individual accounts. A task force of 36 tribal leaders is considering calling for legislation that would create a body akin to a Resolution Trust Corp., which restored the savings and loan industry in the 1980s and which would address both tribal and individual accounts.
Some lawmakers are proposing their own fix. Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sens. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation Friday to create an Interior Department position of deputy secretary for trust management and reform to handle all trust fund duties, and to make it easier for tribes to directly manage or co-manage their own trust funds, which few tribes do now.