Holding the U.S. Accountable for Funds Held in Trust

Donna Ennis

I have returned to school to earn a Master’s degree in Tribal Administration and Governance from the University of Minnesota Duluth. According to the syllabus for one of my courses I will be provided with a general background of the history, development, structures, and politics associated with American Indian tribal governments. I will examine these issues across pre-colonial times through the present, underscoring the contexts of settler law and policy that continue to inflect indigenous governments and the exercise of sovereignty.

Several years ago I discovered correspondence between my great grandfather, Albert Leo Lord (1865 – 1931) and the Department of Interior. His ideas of economic self-sufficiency for Indian people and Tribes were scoffed at by the superintendent of the Department Of The Interior as were his assertions of discrimination. Mr. A.L. Lord corresponded with the Department of the Interior on at least 7 occasions between 1902 and 1928. In this response from the DOI, dated March 14, 1928, he is lectured about the per capita payment and race relations:

Mr. A.L. Lord,

Solon Springs, WI

Dear Mr. Lord:

I have read with much interest your letter of March 12th.

I believe that you have correctly expressed the opinion of the Secretary of the Interior. As a general proposition he believes that the making of payments lead to either a cessation of work I understand, or the formation of tastes beyond earning capacity. However, in the particular case in mind I understand from the Congressional Record that the Secretary has withdrawn any objection to making of the twenty-five dollar per capita payment. The bill has passed both Houses of Congress but has not yet received the signature of the President, it having been sent to him only a few days ago. I judge he will sign the bill and that as soon as the ratification of the majority of the tribe is received here, the payment will be made. No steps to obtain such ratification can be taken until the bill becomes a law.

As to the attitude of the white people of the country with respect to payments, I do not believe that I am in agreement with you. It is my experience that local sentiment is always in favor of a payment. The Governor of the State and others in authority have discouraged the making of payments to the Chippewas at this time in view of the fact that steps are on foot to transfer management of Chippewa affairs from the Government to the State and naturally Minnesota would not care to have all the tribal funds dissipated before they took the responsibility of carrying out relations assumed by the public with respect to the Chippewas – by public I mean the Nation.

I trust that I will be able to deliver payment checks to you within the course of a few weeks. In the meantime be assured that I sincerely hope that the employment situation for your family will improve.

Yours truly,


We can infer from the Superintendent’s response that my great grandfather was asking aboutthe per capita payment from the General Allotment Act of 1887. Fowler Harper, Solicitor, described the 1887 Act as “the beginning of an attempt to break up reservations, settle the Indian on his own allotment, and deal with him as a private citizen, the object was to accomplish a gradual rather than an immediate transition from the tribal relation and dependent wardship to full emancipation and individual responsibility. In the interim, the policy of the Federal Government has been to protect the Indian from improvident alienation of his land during the period of the trust and, repeatedly, to extend the trust periods where the land is still held by the Indians.”

Most Indians received 80 acres and subsequently sold their land for a low price and then squandered the money. By 1934, two thirds of Indian land had converted to traditional private ownership having been sold by the allottee. The allotment policy was formally repealed in 1934, with passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

The plaintiffs in the Cobell settlement claimed that the U.S. government has incorrectly accounted for the income from Indian trust assets, which are legally owned by the Department of the Interior but held in trust for individual Native Americans (the beneficial owners). Over 80 years after this letter was written I received my compensation for the mismanagement of the funds of my great, grandfather.

Albert Leo Lord, a self described half breed, was able to raise these issues that inflected indigenous people before self-governance for the tribes was even established. This has been my inheritance and I in turn enlighten others through my writing.

Donna Ennis is employed in the Behavioral Health Program and is a Tribal Elder at Fond du Lac Reservation. She is on the Board of Directors for the Minnesota Board of Social Work. She is also on the Approved Continuing Education Committee for the Association of Social Work Boards.

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