FROM THE ARCHIVE
Trust fund class action sees support
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WEDNESDAY, JULY 3, 2002

Nearly 300 Navajo tribal members on Tuesday voiced overwhelming support for a lawsuit seeking to bring accountability to the management of their trust funds.

During a four-hour meeting described as emotional and moving, Navajo account holders in New Mexico recounted the problems they encounter. "We find no one is watching our land or our money," said Florence Joe, who spoke in Navajo and whose words were translated for the audience.

"Instead they have been stealing," she said.

Arranged by the Shii Shi Keyah (My Land) Association, an influential group of Navajo account holders, the meeting was held to give tribal members an update on a class action that seeks to correct more than a century of financial mismanagement. Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker, spoke at the Huerfano Chapter House near Farmington.

"This is the first time in history a secretary, a Cabinet level member, has been found to be in contempt of court," she said, referring to the Clinton administration's sanctions for failing to produce trust records relevant to the case.

Shiprock on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. Photo: Cathy

A frequent complaint raised was a computer shutdown that has delayed oil and gas royalty checks to as many as 8,000 Navajo tribal members. Cobell was told of ruined credit, loss of homes and the potential eviction of an elderly man from his nursing home.

A federal court has given the Department of Interior permission to process payments to account holders. Tribal members, however, complained that the money hasn't come through.

Tribal members also spoke passionately about the need to support the lawsuit and the chapter voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution in favor of the case. "Our own leaders should learn something and come forward," said Chester Benally, who made the trip from Utah to attend.

The six-year-old case has heated up in recent months due to the Bush administration's contempt trial. Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb face five charges for their handling of the case, including the failure to adequately protect the $400 million Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust from computer hackers.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth hasn't issued a ruling on the issue. A contempt finding could lead to the appointment of an independent judicial overseer for the trust.

Cobell's visit to the Navajo Nation was one of several she will make in the upcoming months. Talks with account holders are being planned in Oklahoma and other locations.

McCaleb today is also meeting with Navajo officials and tribal members at a regional consultation session in Window Rock, Arizona. A joint federal-tribal task force is asking Indian Country to support a reorganization of the department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Cobell urged the crowd to hold McCaleb and other government officials accountable. "This is our money, this is our land," she said.

"[The government] robbed us of a quality of life," she added.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

Related Stories:
Trust fund monitor defended (7/2)
Cobell to tour Indian Country (6/28)
Tribes demand trust fund oversight (6/27)
Griles can't explain trust standards (6/27)
Norton silent on trust fund probe (6/21)
Tribal demand sees resistance (6/20)
Norton confronted by skeptics (6/19)
Tribal leaders raise doubts about overhaul (6/18)
Trust fund monitor accused of bias (6/18)
Task force met with skepticism (6/17)
Trust fund monitor attacked (6/17)
Trust fund monitor attacked (6/17)
Task force met with skepticism (6/17)

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