In a scathing rebuke of the federal government's treatment of Native Americans, a federal judge yesterday ordered the Interior Department to include notices in its correspondence with Indians whose land the government holds in trust, warning them that the government's information may not be credible.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who has presided for nearly 10 years over a class-action suit on behalf of 500,000 Indians whose land the government has leased to mining, ranching and timber interests, issued one of his most strongly worded opinions on the case.
Lamberth ruled that the government essentially has to tell trust-account holders the information it sends them is not reliable. He also described in his 34-page opinion the history of the lawsuit as proof that the government continues to treat Indians "as if they were somehow less than deserving of the respect that should be afforded to everyone in a society where all people are supposed to be equal."
Lamberth wrote: "For those harboring hope that the stories of murder, dispossession, forced marches, assimilationist policy programs, and other incidents of cultural genocide against the Indians are merely the echoes of a horrible, bigoted government-past that has been sanitized by the good deeds of more recent history, this case serves as an appalling reminder of the evils that result when large numbers of the politically powerless are placed at the mercy of institutions engendered and controlled by a politically powerful few."
The Interior Department, in a statement, said the opinion "contains intemperate rhetoric uncommon to jurisprudence, but made common in this case" and pointed out that the District Court's opinion has been overturned in the three most recent appeals filed.
Since 1996, when Eloise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Indians of Montana, brought the class-action lawsuit against Interior seeking a complete accounting of the money collected and distributed in the trust accounts dating to 1879, Lamberth has found that the federal government has not lived up to its responsibilities in handling the trust accounts or the lawsuit. He has held two interior secretaries, Gale A. Norton of the Bush administration and Bruce Babbitt of the Clinton administration, in contempt of court.
Yesterday, he wrote that "the entire record in this case tells the dreary story of Interior's degenerate tenure as Trustee-Delegate for the Indian trust, a story shot through with bureaucratic blunders, flubs, goofs and foul-ups, and peppered with scandals, deception, dirty tricks and outright villainy, the end of which is nowhere in sight."
Elliot Levitas, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the opinion could be a turning point in the case. The ruling will require the agency to notify individual trust-account holders who were not aware of the suit that they have a place to turn to if they suspect the government has been withholding money or information.
"I predict that as a result of that, we'll be getting information from class members who will tell us about misconduct, misdeeds and mismanagement that we've not heard before. That will help us pursue the litigation," Levitas said. "I think that the public and the Congress are going to be enlightened, and be motivated to see that this injustice is ended and that the taint on our government be removed."