The Department of the Interior and the Indian Trust
A few weeks ago, a $27.5 billion offer was proposed - by plaintiffs and
others - to settle the Cobell v. Norton Indian Trust accounting litigation.
This case has dragged on since 1996, and there is widespread hope across
Indian country, in the administration and in Congress that an acceptable
solution can be achieved for the good of all Indian people.
In her editorial, lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell called the proposal "a
commonsense bargain for the government and Indian people." In light of the
size of the settlement figure - an amount greater than the combined budgets
of the Department of the Interior, Commerce and the Environmental
Protection Agency - a resolution to this case should be based upon facts,
and the facts do not support Cobell's statements.
Over the course of the last century, BIA employees across Indian country
(most of whom are American Indians) did, in fact, distribute trust funds to
Indian Trust account holders and did, in good faith, attempt to keep good
Indian trust records.
To date, the accounting firms working to reconcile historic accounts have
found only a few instances in which individual Indians were underpaid. And
while some records have been lost, most have not because of the "do not
destroy" orders by the National Archives Records Administration - which are
still in place as a consequence of the Indian Land Claims Commission in the
early 1950s. Existing records account for a large percentage of Indian
Trust funds because the bulk of the money came into the trust after 1970,
when oil and timber prices began to rise dramatically. So far, 119,665
boxes containing almost a quarter of a billion pages of Indian records have
been electronically indexed and stored in a brand-new, state of the art
archive facility for safeguarding and future use.
Indeed many social, health, education and land issues plague Indian country
and need attention from tribes, federal agencies and Congress. The
litigation has helped bring necessary attention, and federal funding, to
account for and improve the management of the Indian Trust. The basis of
the lawsuit, however, was simply to account for funds collected in the
In her editorial, Cobell said, "billions of dollars that were supposed to
have been placed in the trust accounts of individual Indians never got
there. They were stolen, embezzled, misappropriated and diverted." While we
recognize Cobell's concerns, the fact remains that the lawsuit that bears
her name is not for reparations, or even mismanagement. It was filed simply
to find out how the funds that came into the trust were disbursed to the
beneficiaries, and to provide those beneficiaries with statements of their
As for the future of the trust: Over the past few years, Interior's Indian
Affairs staff members and tribal leaders have been hard at work improving
and modernizing the trust for the benefit of Indians across the nation.
Today, Interior reconciles cash receipts on a daily basis and financial
assets on a monthly basis. Beneficiaries are provided with quarterly
financial statements, and we are beginning to issue new quarterly asset
statements that include comprehensive information. Our accounting systems
are the same as those used in major private trust corporations, and are
audited every year.
We are improving trust technology across the country, and Indian
beneficiaries have better access to their account information through new
trust officers and staff across Indian country. Beneficiaries can now also
obtain trust information through a nationwide toll-free call center.
Fiduciary trust training has been provided to nearly all Indian Affairs
employees at Interior; and most of the new managers recently hired for
trust work are seasoned professionals in trust administration. These are
just a few of the reforms in place. I am proud to work with Interior staff,
Indian leaders, individual Indians and Congress on these and other
important reforms to the Indian Trust.
For more information on the historical accounting and other reform efforts,
see the 21st Quarterly Report to the Court at www.doi.gov/ost.
Ross Swimmer is the Special Trustee for American Indians at the Department
of the Interior. He also served three terms as Principal Chief of the
Cherokee Nation, and one term as Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs.