Tribes opposing trust fund settlement bill
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Tribal leaders are moving to counteract a controversial legislative proposal that would extinguish the rights of individual Indian account holders in exchange for a cash payout.

Attendees of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) were asked yesterday to support a resolution in opposition to the bill. NCAI President Tex Hall and other tribal leaders said it was being rushed through Congress without an opportunity for public comment.

"It was developed without tribal consultation on a government-to-government basis," Hall said.

The primary fear is that the proposal would be tacked onto the Department of Interior's fiscal year 2003 budget bill, which has yet to be approved by Congress. The resolution being circulated opposes legislative riders.

The chief aide to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) tried to discount those concerns. "It's not being proposed as a rider," said Paul Moorehead of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

But Campbell, who also appeared at NCAI, said he was interested in moving forward with a settlement of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts. He plans to hold hearings next year to address the issue.

John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, was worried nonetheless. He said the program was an attempt by the federal government to take advantage of Indian landowners who may not understand all of their rights.

"It's my responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of Indian society," he said in an interview. "For the government to offer a settlement to those who are desperate financially, that's not fair."

The draft version of the bill gives Secretary of Interior Gale Norton the sole authority to make a cash settlement to willing participants. Account holders cannot question the offer or make a counterclaim, and must sign away all rights to appeal the decision to the federal court system.

Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) lawsuit, said she was pleased to hear there was tribal opposition to the proposal. "We're fighting for money that belongs to us, individual Indians," she told NCAI attendees yesterday.

"Here is the U.S. government owing billions and billions," she added. "We've got to make sure we send them to jail."

The Cobell case requires the Department of Interior to account for the funds in the IIM trust. But due to missing records and inadequate computer systems, it is widely believed an accurate accounting is impossible.

On the other hand, the Bush administration has proposed that it can complete the task within 10 years and at a cost at least $2.4 billion. Congressional appropriators, however, appear unlikely to provide the funds to do that.

The second round of the Cobell case will focus on an accounting. A trial to address the undertaking is scheduled for March 2003.

Relevant Documents:
Draft: IIM Extinguishment Program (PDF 28k)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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