In "Held in Trust, and in Limbo" [news story, June 2], your reporter William Claiborne cites Ripley Berryhill and the 160 acres his grandmother was allotted in 1903 as an example of the Interior Department's failure to protect Indian lands. Claiborne could not have been more wrong.
First, some context. The federal laws governing trust land in the former "Indian Territory" of eastern Oklahoma were passed by Congress in the first half of this century and were often designed to accommodate the production of oil and gas from the vast reserves that existed. Oklahoma state courts and state laws were given extraordinary jurisdiction over Indian lands in Oklahoma. In the case of Berryhill, a federal law that gave the state of Oklahoma the right to probate Indian estates and partition Indian lands cost the Berryhill family their land.
Nettie Berryhill was the first owner of the allotment. Her estate was probated in 1945 in Hughes County (Okla.) court. The heirs were determined to be her six children.
One of these children in 1948, with the approval of state court, conveyed her interest in the Berryhill allotment to Ralph Oliphant, a non-Indian. Later that year, Oliphant filed an action in state court to partition the property pursuant to a congressional act that applied only to Indian lands in eastern Oklahoma.
Fortunately, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had a preferential right to purchase the property in trust for tribes in eastern Oklahoma. The bureau purchased the land for the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, a federally recognized Indian tribe, pursuant to the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act.
Thus, since 1949, the former Nettie Berryhill allotment has been held in trust by the United States for the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town.
To the extent that the Berryhills were badly treated, their unfair treatment was the product of Oklahoma state laws that were applied to Indian lands with the blessing of Congress. Sad to say, it was all legal. Unable to prevent the partition action that would have left the property permanently in non-Indian hands, BIA did the only thing it could to prevent the loss of still more Indian land: It bought the property for the benefit of all the members of the tribe.
All of this information is contained in public court documents. Your reporter made the common mistake of hearing the story of a sympathetic victim and automatically blaming the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The claim that the government owes Berryhill millions of dollars is wrong, and Claiborne easily could have traced the truth. The statement by attorney Keith Harper that the BIA handling of the matter was a "complete abrogation of their fiduciary responsibility" is the opposite of the truth. In this case, Berryhill's aunt sold her land to a non-Indian, and that non-Indian exploited the laws passed by Congress to wrest as much of this land away from Indians as possible. In a good example of the proper exercise of its trust responsibility, the BIA frustrated the scheme and bought the land to be used to benefit the members of Thlopthlocco Tribal Town.
No one at the Department of the Interior would argue that the trust system does not require an overhaul. But no one should be under the impression that the trust funds mess is the product of "bureaucratic bungling." To the contrary, the mess is the product of what might charitably be called deliberate neglect by Congress, by the executive branch and even by the courts.
Berryhill's complaint, and that of many other Indian people, is that Congress made, and BIA executed, bad laws designed to take land out of Indian hands, and that the courts upheld such bad policy. Rather than attacking the Interior Department's execution of these laws, your paper should be criticizing the laws themselves.
The solution requires the cooperation of Congress, the administration, the courts and the Indian people. We look forward to more factual and helpful analysis in the future.
-- Kevin Gover
The writer is assistant secretary of the interior
for Indian affairs.