The Native American Rights Fund filed a major class action lawsuit
against the federal government last week, seeking an accounting
of billions of dollars in tribal trust funds.
With the suit, the nonprofit law firm seeks to
represent over 250 tribal governments whose money has
never been accounted. Eleven tribes signed on as
plaintiffs in the case, the first of its kind.
"This lawsuit is a reflection of a huge historical problem with
the federal government's mismanagement of tribal trust accounts," said
Rebecca Miles, the chairwoman of the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, the lead plaintiff.
"We have tried to work with the agencies and we have tried to work
with Congress. Our hope now is with the courts."
Filed on December 28 in federal district court in Washington, D.C.,
the suit joins dozens of similar cases filed by individual tribes.
It also joins the Cobell lawsuit that represents over 500,000
individual tribal members whose funds remain unaccounted despite
the obligations of the Interior Department to do so.
John Gonzales, the chairman of NARF's board of directors, said
tribes had to take action to beat a critical deadline.
The statute of limitations to file trust accounting lawsuits
expired on December 31, after the 109th Congress refused
to extend it amid opposition from the Bush administration.
"The real battle will be over what more the court or Congress will do
to protect the rights of tribes and hold the government accountable
for its duties as the trustee for tribal trust funds," said
Gonzales, a former president of the National Congress of American
Gonzales, who also has served as governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo in
New Mexico, said tribes are challenging the government's failure to
conduct an accounting of tribal funds dating back to the late
Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs paid the former
accounting firm Arthur Anderson to look ate tribal accounts, the
reconciliation project only looked at the years 1973 through 1992.
"We are confident that the court will agree that the Arthur Andersen
reconciliation reports are not full and complete accountings," said
John Echohawk, the executive director of NARF, said the Arthur
Anderson project marked another breach of the federal
government's basic trust responsibilities.
In legal filings, the Department of Justice has argued that the
reconciliation reports are an accounting even though
the Government Accountability Office has said
such an accounting is "impossible" due to inaccurate, missing
or destroyed records.
"The bottom line is that despite the agency reports and twenty
years of Congressional mandates, no adequate accountings have
resulted to date," said Echohawk, a member of the Pawnee
Tribe of Oklahoma, citing attempts by the GAO,
Interior Department's Office of the Inspector General and
Congress to shed light on the issue.
Despite the failure to complete the accountings, the
Department of Justice has repeatedly sounded alarms about
massive tribal trust fund litigation.
In testimony to Congress, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
has begged appropriators for money in order to defend the
government and "limit" its liabilities.
"The United States' potential exposure in these cases is more
than $200 billion," Gonzales has said.
Tribes and individual Indians
have been filing breach of lawsuits for decades,
recovering some money here and there.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians commissioned
a study that showed only about a dozen cases resulted
in awards of more $1 million.
It wasn't until Elouise Cobell, a member of
the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, came into the picture
that the legal landscape exploded. In December 1999,
she won a precedent-setting ruling that required the government
to conduct an accounting of all funds. NARF serves as co-counsel on
At least 50 tribes have followed on Cobell's footsteps
with lawsuits of their own. As the December 31 deadline
approached, dozens more considered their options but grappled
with the cost of filing a claim and the resources needed
to carry it through.
"Moreover, over two hundred and fifty tribes have not brought or
are unable to bring such claims either due to lack of resources,
or because they are unaware that their legal rights are in
jeopardy, of expiring under statutes of limitation," NARF's
filing stated. "Hence, this class action is necessary to protect
the rights of tribes in the class as defined in this complaint."
Since 2001, the Bush administration has spent hundreds of millions
of dollars on accounting projects for tribes and individual Indians.
But none of the tribal cases, nor the Cobell case, have been fully
resolved through the courts or through settlements.
Key Senate and House leaders introduced a bill to settle the
Cobell case for $8 billion. It was met with extreme opposition
in Indian Country
after the Bush administration also proposed to settle all
pending and future tribal claims and radically diminish
the trust relationship.
In addition to the Nez Perce Tribe, the other named plaintiffs
the Mescalero Apache Nation of New Mexico,
the Tule River Tribe of California, the Hualapai Tribe of Arizona,
the Yakama Nation of Washington, the Klamath Tribes of Oregon, the Yurok Tribe of
California, the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, the Pawnee Nation of
Oklahoma, the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, and the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska.
Nez Perce Tribe v. Kempthorne
(December 28, 2006)
to Extending Statute of Limitations
Statute of Limitations Bill:S.1892
Budget Office Cost Estimate
Native American Rights Fund -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Kempthorne - http://www.indiantrust.com
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