Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL)
Honor the Promises to American Indians
In spring of 2005, Native American and congressional leaders met to address the most serious issue in Indian Country in the 21st century: how to hold the federal government accountable for Indian trust funds flagrantly mismanaged by the Department of Interior.
The federal government’s egregious conduct in mismanaging these funds is of such momentous moral, legal, and financial importance that native people have written “An Open Letter to the American People” requesting help.
Quote from the link:
Imagine the unimaginable-a bank that cannot tell you how much money should be in your account. Or how your money has been invested. Or even where your money is today.
Now, imagine that bank management and its lawyers are abusive to their customers and to the federal judge who is attempting to enforce the bank’s trust duties. Worse, imagine that the bank is plagued by fraud and corruption.
There is such a bank. It’s the U.S. Government. And the bank is currently run by Gale Norton, the Secretary of the Interior, and her Department of Justice lawyers.
For more than 118 years, the U.S. government has collected income from oil and gas leases, timber contracts and other uses of our land-by its own admission, at least $13 billion dollars. Yet, the government cannot account for these funds and it has destroyed almost all the trust records. Very little has ever been paid to the American Indian owners. At the same time, the Government has withheld our desperately needed trust funds, depriving the elderly, the infirm, and Indian children of adequate shelter, food and medical care.
COBELL v. NORTON, the landmark American Indian trust case, was filed almost nine years ago to enforce the trust duties owed by the Government. This is our land and our money. This is not an entitlements program. Unfortunately, the Government has worked hard to undermine the integrity of the judicial proceedings.
Millions of dollars of taxpayer funds are paid to private attorneys to defend the misconduct of Government officials in this litigation. At the same time, the Government retaliates against anyone who attempts to clean up this scandal-including the federal judge.
It’s no wonder the judge has called the Government’s misconduct in this case “the gold standard for arrogance in litigation strategy and tactics.”
Tell President Bush and Congress that it is time to stop this scandal and remove this stain on our nation’s honor.
- Elouise Cobell, Browning, Montana, On Behalf of 500,000 Individual Indians
Long Standing Indian Trust Abuses by Interior
Over the past 100 years, according to accounts from whistle blowers, money belonging to individual Indians and tribes was pilfered, skimmed, redirected, or thrown in with general government funds by the U.S. Department of the Interior or its appointed representatives. Yet, the Interior Department has not identified or repaid any known thefts and losses of trust resources, proceeds, or royalties. After struggling for decades to receive a hearing, American Indian families went to federal court to plead their case.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a class-action suit in favor of half a million Native Americans whose funds have been handled ineptly and unethically. The court stated, “The underlying lawsuit is both an Indian case and a trust case in which the trustees have egregiously breached their fiduciary duties.” Yet, the U.S. government has continued to appeal these court rulings and tried to avoid responsibility. Now the Congress may intervene to help address the issue.
Native people know this is an historic moment when finally the federal government may be obliged to correct a hard-hearted and flawed system and pay redress for a century of negligence. They are keenly aware that this is a one-time opportunity to receive financial justice and to reform a totally broken trust management system. They also know Congress and the White House could support or undercut this break-through.
What is all of this about? Parade magazine (September 9, 2001) put it this way, “When the U.S. government took control of Native Americans’ property rights in 1887, the Indians were assured they would receive the income from their land. They never did-and now they’re fighting for it.” Indians have received checks from the Bureau of Indian Affairs but they are irregular and smaller than they should be in far too many instances. A Los Angeles Times Magazine (July 7, 2002) story gives the example of Josephine Wild Gun who receives less than $1,000 a year even though 7,000 acres of family land were leased out for grazing, oil, minerals and timber.
The federal government has collected $13 billion in land-use money that belongs to Indian land owners but cannot show how much money it paid out. It threw out, lost, or never kept records. Withholding money from Indian families–or “losing” their money– is part of a shameful pattern.
Why should we care?
Although successive administrations have denied the facts affirmed by the courts, the federal government owes a huge amount of money to Native Americans– money that was in earmarked trust funds, money that was theirs. This is not only wrong but is a troubling precedent that should gravely concern the public.
All trust funds, including Social Security, depend on a system of honesty, integrity, and accountability. This is essential to maintaining the public trust. In the private sector, trustees are jailed, fined, and otherwise punished for taking or not returning other people’s money. This is true for bankers, lawyers, accountants, and individuals who manage accounts for the disabled or elderly. The Bush administration stresses that good government involves transparency, effectiveness, and accountability in government. The government must practice what it preaches.
The native plaintiffs in this court case (Cobell v. Norton) are quite close to getting redress in the court, but will Congress do the right thing? The plaintiffs need our support. With our advocacy help, American Indian families can get back their own money, money that could bring thousands of families out of stark poverty. You can help.
1. Ask your senators and representatives to find out more about this issue. You can write them a letter on FCNL’s web site.
2. Sign up to receive the FCNL Native American Legislative updates by email at the same website.
3. Support FCNL’s Native American Program work by donating to their cause.