The Native Indian Trust, or, “I don’t believe one word you are telling me.” Cobell v. Norton

In 1870, U.S. federal government policy was to relocate Indians in reservations, to protect them from the rapacious pioneering hunger of the times for lands of non-Indian standing. Fear of a break up of most of these reservations, starting in the 1880s, led the government to create a trust, thereby assuming full responsibility for management of the trusted lands. One of the duties of the trustee - the U.S. federal government - was to collect and disburse to the native Indians of the Northwest any revenues generated by mining, oil and gas extraction, timber operations, grazing or similar activities.

This could have been a very welcome pact, had it only been respected. The U.S. government has found it very difficult to accomplish these goals, given that its federal officials have misrepresented, mismanaged and delayed their tasks since the contract was signed, more than a century ago. The malfeasance of the government has led to thousands of lost and inaccurate records, billions of dollars of tribal and taxpayer money wasted, 600,000 acres of lands either misoccupied or with ownership impossible to trace, and—what is more important—has created more than 500,000 dejected, taxpaying native Indians throughout the country. Recently, a multimillion-dollar federal computer system was comprehensively hacked from the outside, with a largely unskilled electronic assailant entering fraudulent numbers, names and other records.

In 1996, Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of Native Americans, in order to account for the money and to bring about permanent reform of the system created to manage the funds of several Indian communities. Since the lawsuit was filed, the U.S. Interior Department, responsible for this “big deal”, has seen both its credibility, and the confidence sustained in it, eroded—a confidence hardy enough to withstand the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s. With countless news organizations following the case, several editorials have branded the case the nation's largest business fiasco.

For the Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, who within these past few weeks was expected to testify in her own contempt trial before a federal jugde, this nightmare of a scenario has a price tag: more than $10 billion unaccounted for or mismanaged, a sum roughly equivalent to the entire annual budget of the U.S. Treasury.

So far, the Indian representatives and their lawyers have been unable to foresee whether the injured Native Indians will be comprehensively compensated for the damages that have been done to them since they were forced to live in closed reservations, years ago. Today, however, and five years from the beginning of this landmark trial, they have received a pledge potentially redefining Federal-Tribal relations, and one seemingly indicating the worthwhile aspect of their pursuit of justice: the Department of the Interior has committed itself to sending checks immediately to American Indians, covering any incurred oil and gas debts.

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