Tribes want trust predicament settled

Of The Billings Gazette Staff


Tribal representatives from Montana and Wyoming said government action on the Indian Trust Fund Lawsuit is long overdue in sworn testimony in Billings Saturday to Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.

The House of Representatives Committee on Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., announced the series of field hearings just a day before. Saturday's was the first of the hearings that will be held nationwide.

Unusual testimony
Representatives from all seven Montana reservations and one from Wyoming testified. One individual Crow trust landowner and a representative from the Little Shell Tribe also testified. The Little Shell Tribe is not recognized by the federal government, but Rehberg allowed its representative to testify.

"This is unusual, this wouldn't happen in Washington D.C.," Rehberg said.

The hearings were called to take official comment from tribes regarding the Cobell v. Norton class-action lawsuit. The suit was filed on June 10, 1996, in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Indian from Montana.

Thousands of American Indians have been allotted ownership of 80- to 160-acre parcels of land since the 1800s. As trustee, the government took legal title to the parcels, established an Individual Indian Trust and assumed responsibility for management of the trust lands. That included the duty to collect and disburse to Indians any revenues generated by mining, oil and gas extraction, timber operations, grazing or similar activities on the trust land.

Permanent reform
The suit calls for the government to account for the money, and to bring about permanent reform of the system. Cobell and her co-plaintiffs contend the federal government needs to account for as much as $135 billion owed to 500,000-plus American Indians and their heirs.

Fred Matt, chairman of the Flathead Indian Reservation's Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, echoed many of the tribal representatives and Rehberg himself when he criticized the government for taking so long to address the problem.

"Federal mismanagement has caused many injustices that would not have been tolerated in any other segment of society," Matt said.

On the Flathead Reservation, the tribes have been successful in managing their own affairs, and they are opposed to the government having more control, Matt said. He and others said they are concerned that elderly tribal members will never see any of the money they deserve before they die.

Kayle Howe, executive aide to Crow Chairman Carl Venne, said the problem is enormous on his reservation, where there are more than 7,000 accounts on 1.2 million acres of trust land. Howe, like most of the tribal representatives, said they support congressional intervention in the issue.

Jay St. Goddard, Blackfeet tribal chairman, said his tribe opposes congressional oversight, because they will side with the Department of the Interior rather than Indians.

"Courts are the proper place to decide, not in Congress," St. Goddard said. "Court experts are in a much better position than Congress."

St. Goddard also said the DOI is delaying action on Cobell v. Norton because Interior officials know they will lose the lawsuit.

Geri Small, president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, and several others brought up a bill introduced by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., that allows for Indian trust beneficiaries to settle accounts outside their current class action lawsuit, Cobell v. Norton.

SB 1770, or the Indian Money Account Claims Satisfaction Act of 2003, would allow for a claims resolution process. It would authorize a nine-member task force to analyze trust records and data, and disposition of account balances upon the approval of beneficiaries. The bill calls for $10 million a year for the next four fiscal years.

"All these costs could be avoided if the government simply settled the Cobell lawsuit," Small said.

Vernon Hill, chairman of the Shoshone Business Council in Fort Washakie, Wyo., agreed that all the money spent so far has been wasted, and the process is flawed.

"Even if Congress could allocate the money, it will only benefit the accounting firms," Hill said. "Meanwhile, the tribes suffer."

Hill, like most of the speakers, said a major reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs would probably be a waste of time and money. Adding more levels of bureaucracy and spending more money at the higher levels of management would make the agency ineffective, he said.

Rehberg asked the tribal representatives if they knew how many individual accounts they had on each of their reservations. Only a few had hard figures, but said they would try to find out. None had any firm dollar amounts for what the government owes them.

Rehberg asked the representatives if they would support legislation that would allow individuals the option of being in the class action lawsuit, or seeking other means of settlement. Most said yes, but some said they would have to confer with their respective councils. Most of the members told Rehberg they were not interested in binding arbitration with the government.


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