CFO Magazine: The Indian trust fund accounting

"Deep underneath an industrial park in Lenexa, Kansas — not far from Shawnee Mission Lake and Arapaho Park — the work goes on. In a vast underground warehouse, historians and archivists carefully unpack endless rows of boxes. The cartons, sent from far-flung federal warehouses and obscure outposts on Indian reservations, contain financial records collected over the years by government agencies.

Some of the items date to the late 19th century, back to the days of Indian chiefs Looking Glass, Red Cloud, and Gall. Once indexed, the documents — mostly leases and bills — are coded and entered into a government computer system. To date, workers in Lenexa have gone through some 160,000 boxes, processing nearly 40 million coded pages.

Those pages, sometimes little more than bits of paper, are pieces of a puzzle — a puzzle that the Department of the Interior (DoI) dubs The Historical Accounting Project for Individual Indian Money (IIM) Accounts. The purpose of the massive project is to reconcile, for the first time, individual trust accounts managed for decades and decades by the federal government on behalf of Native Americans.

By the time the project is completed in 2011, the accounting will have consumed $274 million over eight years. That dwarfs audits of large publicly traded companies, which tend to cost about $10 million. It is, noted former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, "an accounting project of unprecedented proportions."

It is also wildly controversial. Elouise Cobell, a former treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation who has sued the DoI to force this historical reckoning of the individual Indian trusts (Cobell v. Kempthorne), claims that more than $100 billion may be missing from the individual accounts. But Ross Swimmer, who heads up the Interior Department agency overseeing the project (as special trustee at the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, or OST), believes the amount owed to individual Indians is far less — more likely in the millions than billions."

Get the Story:
The Long Trail (CFO Magazine October 2007)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Kempthorne -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -

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