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"The Indian Enron"? Hundreds of Boxes of Documents Destroyed, Charges of Contempt of Court, Billions of Dollars at Stake, Millions Paid to Arthur Anderson: Native Americans Sue the U.S. Government in

April 29, 2002
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The destruction of hundreds of boxes of documents; charges of contempt of court; billions of dollars at stake; millions paid to Arthur Anderson.

No, it’s not the Enron scandal. It is much bigger. It’s one of the largest class-action lawsuits in history, and it’s about how the U.S. government has treated Native Americans over the last century.

The US government began taking Native American land and putting it into government-run trust funds in the 19th century. In 1887, a new law called for the breaking up of tribal land into allotments to individual Native Americans. The law was a means of winning land for white settlers–after allocating land to individuals, the government would declare a "surplus," and "buy" the surplus for a pittance. Congress has also concluded that law was an attempt to break up tribes. It destroyed the land base of many reservations.

Over the years, the government leased the land to oil companies, miners, ranchers, and loggers, and sent checks to landowners. But according to a massive class-action lawsuit, the system has plagued by problems for decades. Landowners have no way to determine how much money they are owed and whether they are receiving a good value for their leases. The government often fails to collect on leases or send funds to the correct beneficiary. There has never been an accounting of the funds.

The General Accounting Office, the Interior Department, and Congress have all urged reform. Congress tried to fix the system and failed. The Interior Department tried, and failed. Accounting giant Arthur Anderson was paid over $20 million to fix the system, and failed.

In 1996, Blackfeet Nation treasurer Elouise Cobell launched the class action lawsuit to account for all royalties due individual Native Americans since 1887. Since then, the government has destroyed over one hundred boxes of records. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin under Clinton were held in contempt of court. Cobell just finished a month-long hearing seeking contempt of court charges against the current Interior Secretary, Gale Norton.

Guests:

  • Eloise Cobell, former treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation.
  • Keith Harper, attorney, Native American Rights Fund.

Related links:

Music:

  • "Peace Is A-Coming", Khayumbia, is Kharabia Rayford (vocals, percussion) & Yumi Steve Hooks (bass, guitar, flute and keyboard).

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