The way Ripley Berryhill figures it, the U.S. government owes his family millions of dollars in royalties from oil pumped from beneath 160 acres of land it allotted to his grandmother in 1903. But he wonders if he will live long enough to see any of it.
Berryhill, 59, a Muskogee Creek Indian who lives a hardscrabble existence on about $8,000 a year in disability checks, stood before a wellhead on Nettie Tiger Berryhill's allotment recently and tried to do the math: 122,478 barrels extracted from the time she died in 1943 until 1970, when his search of oil-pumping records reached a dead end. With Oklahoma sweet crude selling for $16 a barrel now and some of the most profitable years coming after 1970, the yield obviously was going to be enormous.
"We never could figure out what it'd be worth all added up, but some lawyers we talked to in Tulsa said, 'You're talking $12 million to $15 million easily,' " Berryhill said. "That's a lot of money for someone in my situation."
But Berryhill and his grandmother's 27 other living heirs have a problem. Or, more precisely, they have several problems.
First, the Bureau of Indian Affairs never completed a probate of Nettie Berryhill's will, as it was required to do as the trustee of allotted Indian lands, Berryhill said. Then, inexplicably, the BIA sold the land and the oil rights that went with it, without any of the proceeds going to family members, Berryhill said. But the biggest problem of all, Berryhill discovered, is that most of the documents concerning the oil leases cannot be found.
"It's like going around in circles," said Berryhill, who has visited document archives in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and even Fort Worth in search of records to prove his case. "They send you from one office to another and you end up right where you started."
Berryhill's is one of thousands of American Indian claims against the federal government for mismanaging over the last century assets held in trust by the government that conceivably could result in compensatory payments reaching into the tens of billions of dollars.
The Interior Department, of which the BIA is a part, says it is trying to straighten out 350,000 unreconciled trust accounts held by individual Indians and 1,500 more tribal accounts that go back to 1887, when the government began breaking up reservations and allotting small parcels of 40 to 160 acres to individual tribal members. The allotments were part of the government's assimilation policy, which at the time was intended to dismantle Indian reservations and disperse tribes across the country.
The trust accounts often were created to hold assets for minors or to collect and hold royalties from the sale of petroleum, natural gas, timber and other natural resources extracted from the transferred land, with income supposedly being passed on to descendants of the original beneficiaries.
But BIA officials admit that many records covering the 55 million acres of land it manages in trust--as well as those for the 350,000 landowners, 100,000 active leases and 2 million individual owner interests--have been lost over the last century in a maze of antiquated record-keeping. Despite periodic proddings from tribal leaders, federal courts and Congress, government accountants and outside analysts have been unable to reconcile the records, or in many cases even ascertain if royalty checks were issued or cashed.
The BIA acknowledges that there are people like Nettie Berryhill who died 50 or more years ago and whose wills, containing potentially huge trust assets, have not been probated. Keith Harper, an attorney with the Washington-based Native American Rights Fund, called the BIA's handling of the accounts a "complete abrogation of their fiduciary responsibility."
Kevin Gover, assistant interior secretary and head of the BIA, said he could not comment on individual trust cases. "We can't respond to horror stories. If we release information about how much land someone owns, we can be sued," Gover said.
In fact, Gover and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt already are the targets of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 300,000 Native Americans who say they have been deprived of billions of dollars in trust funds. The case is scheduled to go to trial this summer.
In February, Babbitt and Gover were cited for contempt of court by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth for showing a "flagrant disregard" of the judge's order to produce trust account documents for the trial. Lawyers for the two officials said that the documents could not be produced because they could not be found.
In 1994, after spending $21 million for an outside audit of two decades' worth of accounts, the BIA acknowledged that it was unable to adequately document $2.4 billion in tribal trust fund transactions. While it has not been ascertained that the money is actually missing, documents cannot be found to show where much of it came from and where--or even if--it was paid, officials readily admit.
BIA officials say that in many cases the money has not gone anywhere because checks never even left the Treasury Department. There was no place to send them because the heirs of the original trusts could not be found.
Babbitt, in a meeting with reporters last week in Washington, said: "There are no huge sums of money missing. It is a lack of documentation, a lack of evidence."
In response to questions, however, Babbitt acknowledged that there was no way of knowing how much money was missing and how much was actually paid out until the process of reconciling trust accounts is completed.
Officials say that documents are scattered in disarray in dozens of government warehouses around the country without any cross-indexing and sometimes without source identification. In the case of the main BIA document center in Albuquerque, long-forgotten trust records were contaminated with rat feces containing a dangerous virus and therefore were considered inaccessible by bureau employees.
Audits have found that more than 45,000 accounts are for individuals whose whereabouts are unknown; 21,000 are for people who have died; 128,000 accounts have no Social Security or tax identification numbers; and $21.7 million is being held ostensibly for minors who have long since reached adulthood.
Many of the trust fund accounts involved "fractionalized" landholdings that over many years have been divided among so many heirs that the value from leases and other sources of income often is less than $1 per person. Gover said he receives as little as 7 cents a year on a mineral interest that once belonged to his great-grandfather, a Pawnee Indian, even though it costs the Interior Department $35 to handle such an account.
Gover said the BIA had "recorded proof" of only $15 million to $25 million in errors, and that it was unfair of bureau critics to make Indian trust holders think that "their ship is coming in" with billions of dollars in compensation. "From what we've seen so far, there is not $1 billion in mistakes," Gover said.
However, attorney Harper called Gover's $15 million to $25 million estimate "ridiculous" and, noting that $350 million goes through the trust system each year, said, "We believe it will be multi-billions of dollars in aggregate corrections."
Dennis Gingold, another lawyer for the Indians, said a preliminary estimate by the Price Waterhouse accounting firm, which was hired by the Native American Rights Fund to study the government trust records, shows that the Indians are owed at least $10 billion--more than the Interior Department's entire annual budget.
Eloise Cobell, a Blackfoot Indian and the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit against the department, said money that was supposed to transform Indians from welfare dependents into landowners and pay for college educations has been mismanaged, diverted, lost and--in some cases--stolen or never collected. She said powerful corporations in Oklahoma drill for oil and timber companies in the Pacific Northwest harvest trees under what is essentially an honor system. Moreover, rich potato land in Idaho is leased at below market rates and ranchers in Montana graze their cattle on Indian trust lands for free, she said.
"They are totally wrong when they say this [reconciling trusts] won't affect the lifestyles of poor people," Cobell said. "I'm seeing people die poor every day when they actually have a hell of a lot more money that should be in their accounts."
In an effort to sort out the fund, the Interior Department is spending $60 million on a new computer system that is scheduled to make its debut next month at a BIA regional office in Billings, Mont. The system is supposed to not only reconcile the challenged trust accounts, but also give Indians a way to check their funds at any time and link the accounts with the department's land records.
However, the General Accounting Office, in a report issued last month, said off-the-shelf accounting software the BIA purchased to cut down on planning time could be inadequate for the task. The GAO said the bureau went ahead with the project without thoroughly analyzing its needs and without ensuring that it will be able to handle trust data linked to different systems.
Such debate makes little impression on Indians such as Rosalie Taylor Grothaus, a 61-year-old Seminole who last week visited her grandmother's original 160-acre allotment near Bowlegs, about 20 miles east of here, and watched oil being pumped out of a well there.
A sign on the well identifies it as "Molleah Taylor No. 4"--Molleah Taylor was Grothaus's grandmother--but no one in the family has received any royalties from the well in years, Grothaus said.
CAPTION: Rosalie Taylor Grothaus, left, visits her grandmother's land allotment near Bowlegs, Okla. She says family members have not received oil royalties in years because of mismanagement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Below, Ripley Berryhill stands at well on his grandmother's allotment in Holdenville, Okla., with his brother, Chubby. Berryhill says his family might be owed millions for oil taken from the site.