Indian Leaders Seek to Settle Lawsuit Over Leasing of Land

Lead plaintiff Eloise Cobell, right, of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana talks with Sharon Clahchischilliage, executive director of the Navajo Nation, before a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington.
Lead plaintiff Eloise Cobell, right, of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana talks with Sharon Clahchischilliage, executive director of the Navajo Nation, before a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. (By Lauren Victoria Burke For The Washington Post)
By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The official battle of the Indian trust fund accounts began nine years ago, when the largest class-action lawsuit against the federal government asked the courts to answer the question that residents of Indian country had been asking officials for decades: How much money had the U.S. government earned by leasing tribal land?

But the question of how the federal government managed -- or mismanaged -- Native American land began in 1887. That is when it broke up 90 million acres of reservation land into allotments belonging to Indians and set up trust accounts for them -- the Individual Indian Monies trusts -- to collect money from leases it granted to oil, grazing and timber interests.

Given the years under consideration, since Cobell vs. Norton (originally Cobell vs. Babbitt ) was filed in 1996 on behalf of more than 300,000 Indians demanding an accurate historical accounting of their trusts, it has led to dozens of court battles, tangents and estimates on how much money the government may have mismanaged, lost or stolen from Indians. Yesterday, several prominent Indian leaders, including the lead plaintiff in the case, Eloise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, came to Washington to announce 50 principles for legislation that they said could settle the case.

Most significant, they said they would settle the case for $27.5 billion -- a figure they said was a discount from the $176 billion their accountants calculated would be owed in royalties and interest if no allotment holder had ever been paid. The figure, they said, acknowledges that some money has been paid over the years.

"It is discounted quite substantially," Cobell said at a news conference, "but I think we all understand that there's a lot of suffering in Indian country. Many people will die before the money is approved."

The Indian leaders said they had been asked by Senate and House members, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, and Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), senior Democrat on the panel, to come up with a plan they could use as a road map for a congressional resolution to the lawsuit.

Cobell, a banker and treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation in northwestern Montana, said the money would drastically change Indians' lives. The shame, she said, is that the government is fighting some of the poorest people in the country over money it owes them at the same time that it reneges on its treaty obligations by cutting funding for Indian programs.

"They took our land and said they would provide health care and education," she said in an interview after the news conference. "And every single year they cut the funds."

The Indian Health Service, for example, is so underfunded that it will not allow patients to see specialists unless they have a life-threatening condition, Cobell said: "They're pulling young people's teeth out because it's cheaper to do that than fill cavities." She added that her husband did not receive proper care for his diabetes until it became severe. "His leg is amputated now," she said.

But Dan DuBray, a spokesman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said that the $27.5 billion the plaintiffs are asking for "is greater than the combined budgets of the departments of the Interior and Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency."

"It really is a paradox that faces the plaintiffs," he said. "They brought the case on the foundation of a 1994 law that requires the government to provide an accounting for Indian beneficiaries. They brought the suit seeking that accounting. Now they're saying that they are not seeking an accounting, they are seeking money."

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who is hearing the lawsuit, has said that the Interior Department "sets the gold standard for mismanagement by the federal government." But DuBray said yesterday that the department has spent $100 million thus far to provide an accounting and has found "no evidence" of fraud or any major systemic error.

Out of 47,500 accounts studied, he said, the department found underpayments in 11 accounts ranging from $57 to $263.

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