Settling accounts

June 30, 2005

THE ALLEGED bilking of Native American tribes by a slick Washington lobbyist hired to promote their gaming interests can't compare to the Indian monies lost by the federal government. The dubious dealings of lobbyist Jack Abramoff cost several tribes a fraction of the sum squandered by America's mismanagement of tribal lands. In the same week congressional investigators were identifying Mr. Abramoff's misdeeds, a group of Native American leaders was offering a solution to their long-standing dispute over remuneration for use of Indian lands.

The principles outlined by the Indian coalition should be the starting point for settling the 9-year-old court case and correcting the incompetence that led to it. Sens. John McCain and Byron L. Dorgan, who requested the principles, should shepherd a compromise through the Congress and end a century-old injustice. The lawmakers wanted Indian leaders to speak with one voice on a possible solution to this case, and they have.

Elouise Cobell, a community development officer and member of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe of Montana, filed the lawsuit in 1996. It involves the Indian Trust and the Department of Interior's management of it. The trust covers 56 million acres of Indian land and natural resources and royalties paid to its owners for use of them. It dates to 1887, when the U.S. government took control of Native American lands, divvied them up among tribes and Indians and held the parcels in trust.

The Indians were supposed to be paid for use of the land, including grazing, mining, drilling and logging. But the government failed to collect proper fees, didn't keep track of who was owed what and couldn't account for its mistakes because it was overwhelmed by the task at hand. The trust covers 1,400 tribal and 300,000 individual accounts, the latter involving about $400 million worth of payments annually.

Several courts have found that the government mismanaged the fund, so much so that federal officials can't reconcile the accounts. Documents have been lost or destroyed; bookkeeping was a fiction. Past and present interior secretaries have argued that they can reform the system, but none has made good on that claim.

The government has spent too much time in court trying to make this case go away, and it's easy to see why: As much as $28 billion could be at stake, according to Native American representatives. It's a staggering sum that suggests settling the case is the only realistic option. Resolving this lawsuit turns on identifying a fair and equitable settlement figure, since the lack of documentation makes an accurate accounting impossible, and instituting a system with proper oversight.

The 50-point proposal presented by Native American leaders last week provides ample recommendations for discussion and negotiation. But what has been noticeably lacking in this case is a commitment to act. Congress shouldn't delay. In this case, time is definitely money.

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