The federal government must inform hundreds of thousands of Indian beneficiaries across the country that it has utterly "failed" to carry out its trust responsibilities, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.
Expressing frustration with the nine-year-old Cobell v. Norton case, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth warned in a 34-page decision that he would like the court "simply wash its hands" of the Interior Department's "iniquities once and for all." He said he has grown tired of waiting for the government to correct more than 100 years of mismanagement.
But Lamberth, an appointee of the late president Ronald Reagan, said he wasn't ready to give up just yet. "it would constitute an announcement that negligence and incompetence in government are beyond judicial remedy, that bureaucratic recalcitrance has outpaced and rendered obsolete our vaunted system of checks and balances, and that people are simply at the mercy of governmental whim with no chance for salvation," he wrote.
So in hopes of ensuring that Indian people receive justice -- if at all -- he ordered the government to inform upwards of 500,000 American Indians of their rights. "The notice requirement established by the court today represents a significant victory for the plaintiffs," he wrote. "For the first time in the history of this case, the majority of Indian beneficiaries will be aware of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs' efforts, and the danger involved in placing any further confidence in the Department of the Interior."
The notice must state that Interior has been ordered to provide each Individual Indian Money (IIM) beneficiary with an "accurate accounting" of his or her trust account but has yet to do so, Lamberth said in an accompanying order. Account holders must be told that information contained in the
trust "may be unreliable," the order states.
The plaintiffs in the Cobell lawsuit, filed in June 1996, hailed the decision as a positve development.
"This ruling is unprecedented and it is very, very helpful to Indian people," said Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney. "It will ensure that Indian landowners will have basic
and critical information about their lands."
The order comes just days after a senior Interior official disavowed any historic mismanagement of the trust. Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary and acting Indian affairs assistant secretary, appeared on the C-SPAN program "Washington Journal" on July 6.
"We haven't found any systemic errors or faults in the system," Cason said. "We have found a few errors. They tend to be small. ... They're netting out pretty close to zero."
Cason said a settlement of $27.5 billion proposed by the plaintiffs recently was an unrealistic figure because there is no factual basis for it. He said there was no way Indian people could have been so uniformed about the handling of their land and trust assets over the past 100 years.
"There's no way you can actually get there logically," he said of the proposed settlement.
"That defies reason. We haven't found the evidence of that in this particular issue."
Lamberth said the record proves otherwise. He noted that the trust was created in 1887 out of
"greed for the land holdings of the tribes" and that the United States has continued to mistreat Native Americans.
"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," he observed.
This long and sordid history is the subject of a Senate resolution that would apologize to Native peoples for the government's "depredations and ill-conceived policies." Although the measure doesn't mention the trust by name, it cites the General Allotment Act, broken treaties, armed conflicts, massacres, forced assimilation and other attempts to rid Native people of their way of life.
Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana who is the lead plaintiff in the case, said an apology would be useless without action. "If the United States government wants to be serious about what they're doing to Native American people, then give us the accounting,"
she said on the C-SPAN program.
"That's all we're asking. We're asking for an accounting of our money that has been squandered away by we don't know who over the last 100-plus years," she said.
Cobell v. Norton
(July 12, 2005)
Trust Reform and Cobell Settlement Workgroup Principles for Legislation
Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
Trust Fund Monitoring Association - http://www.itmatrustfunds.org