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Indian Leaders Offer to Settle Largest Class Action Lawsuit Against Federal Government in U.S. History

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Prominent Native American leaders united this week in a historic effort to resolve a struggle dating back more than 100 years, offering to settle the largest class action lawsuit against the federal government in U.S. history. We speak with the lead plaintiff in the case, Elouise Cobell. [includes rush transcript]

Indian leaders have offered to settle the largest class action lawsuit against the federal government in US history. Several prominent Native American leaders united this week in a historic effort to resolve a struggle dating back more than 100 years. The issue is the federal government’s care of trust funds belonging to Native Americans. The result is a set of 50 principles adopted by a national tribal task force to change how the Department of Interior does business with Indian country.

Trust funds were set up for Native Americans in 1887 under the General Allotment Act. The policy aimed to absorb Indians into American society by breaking up tribally owned lands. Congress divided 90 million acres of reservation land into individualized parcels called allotments. Congress awarded allotments to each tribal member, but viewed Native Americans as incompetent to manage their own affairs or resources. The federal government took complete charge of the Indians’ lands and leased the allotments to oil, gas, timber, grazing and mining interests. The money was supposed to be passed along to the Indians, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs often failed to do so. Lease payments weren’t collected and when they were, the money went elsewhere. Native Americans have never received all the money due, despite constant complaints and numerous investigations. Some $300 million a year flows into the trust accounts.

In 1996, the largest class-action lawsuit ever launched against the government was filed on behalf of 300,000 trust-fund beneficiaries. Cobell vs. Norton challenges the federal government to account for the billions of dollars held in trust since the late 19th century. The case has dragged on for 9 years. A federal judge hearing the case in 1999 said the accounts were so botched that it was impossible to know what was owed to whom. The court was placed in charge of overseeing the process of fixing the trust funds.

This week, leaders of the Osage, Blackfeet, Navajo, and Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations converged in Washington to announce a set of guiding plans for reform. This comes after urgings from Senate and House members. Sens John McCain of Arizona and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota are now expected to introduce legislation for a settlement in the Cobell case and trust reform. The inter-tribal coalition presented a settlement amount of $27.5 billion as part of the map for reform.

  • Elouise Cobell, Lead plaintiff in the landmark Cobell v. Norton case. She was part of the national working group that drafted the Principles roadmap for trust reform. She served as Treasurer of the Blackfeet nation in Montana before launching the case.

NOTE: We called the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior. Spokesperson Dan DuBray declined to be on the show.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Cobell, Elouise Cobell, that is. Part of the national working group that has drafted the Principles Roadmap for Trust Reform. She served as treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana before launching the case. By the way, we did call the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior. The spokesperson, Dan DuBray declined to be on the program today. This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez. Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, to begin with, could you tell us a little bit about the meeting that was held over the weekend, the decision to offer a settlement, which as I understand, is much lower than what you believe the federal government actually owes Native Americans?

ELOUISE COBELL: Well, we have been in court for nine years, as you stated. We’ve won every step of the way in court. And basically, it drags on. The government has a way of stalling the victories and, in fact, we want an accounting. This case is basically about an accounting, accounting to Indian people for the lands that you spoke about that they were to manage in trust for individual Indians, and as we won our victory, the United States government would never, ever comply. They just adverted the court orders, but Senator McCain and many members of Congress said, you know, “Well, can you get united?” And I think one of the biggest war tactics that the government has used against us is they continue to say “Divide and conquer.” If you don’t — if you are not united, and if you don’t stand with a united front, you know, then we’re not going to get anything done.

And so, we basically took Congress up on the challenge, and we came together as Indian people, and Indian people across the nation supported the lawsuit 100% and said, “This is what it will take for us to settle this case.” As you stated, they can’t account for anything and the amount of money that we have determined because the Appellate Court ruled in our case that compound interest exists, and it’s in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

But in the meantime, in our communities, our Indian communities, which are very, very poor, we have oil wells pumping in your back yard and people not getting any money. And people are dying every single day without their due justice. So, we have determined, with the help of experts, you know, what will it take to settle this case. That was our challenge from Congress, and so we came up with the amount of $27.5 billion. And that’s discounted substantially, but we do need to get money — this is money that is owned by our own people and we need to get that money back into our communities. We need to have people — it’s their inheritance.

You know, it’s amazing to me that the United States government could get away with this for so long, and it’s very simple. This suit is just — let me tell you, I’m a banker, and no other private citizen would ever have to sue for what we had to sue for. We sued the United States government for fixing the systems, fixing the accounting systems that manage our money. The second part, we sued for an accounting, and once the accounting is done, then account balances have to be adjusted, and let me tell you, nobody has to sue for that. Normally, if you have the behavior like the United States government has behaved in the management of our trust funds, you would not be walking the streets. You would be in jail.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you, Secretaries of the Interior under both Democrats and Republicans now have been held in contempt of court over failure to properly account for these monies, and as I understand it, one article I read said the government has spent now $300 million trying to figure out what they owe Native Americans, and they still can’t do it. How did this get to where it is today? What was it about the breakdown here in accounting that made it possible for this to go on for so long?

ELOUISE COBELL: Well, since 1887, the United States government never ever was — was never made to give an accounting to the individual Indians that owned these trusts. Although that there were zillions of G.A.O. reports, which is Government Accounting Office reports, zillions of Inspector General reports that pointed to this is a horrible mismanagement of these trust funds. There’s fraud that exists. You know, money is being stolen from individual Indians, and nobody would do anything about it.

And you know, I grew up with this. I grew up with grandparents, parents that continued — and relatives would continue to say, you know, “We can’t get our money. My husband is sick, and I need to take him to the doctor, but I can’t get my money from the Indian agent.” And they treated us like dirt. When people would try to get any information on their account, they’d say, “Come back in a week.” You go back in a week. “Well, come back in three months.” You go back in three months. You never, ever would get your money until the United States government decided that, “Oh, well, you know, maybe I will pay you something.” And we just got really tired of it. I got tired of it. I tried to the best of my ability to try to get the government to do the right thing. I knocked on doors between administration to administration. “You have got to see this. See what has happened.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Elouise Cobell, where did the money go? Have you been able to trace some of it that would show who benefited actually from this stolen money?

ELOUISE COBELL: The Treasury Department testified in our case, because the Treasury Department acts as the bank, and the Department of Interior is supposed to tell the Treasury Department who gets the money, because the government collects the money. And a Treasury official testified in our case that this money kept coming in to Treasury, billions and billions of dollars, and they didn’t know who it belonged to, because the Department of Interior was too lazy or inept to give the information to the Department of Treasury to send out checks to them, so they said, billions of dollars just accumulated, and they didn’t know who it belonged to, so they used it for other purposes, such as reducing the national debt.

And all this time Indian people in our communities are so poor that they couldn’t afford to do anything. I mean, basically, they robbed us out of an entire quality of life. I mean, we could have been sending our kids to college. We could have been building homes. We could have health insurance. But in the meantime, the government had control. And they testified in our court case that 75% of the leases were not recorded. So, basically, big oil companies, big timber companies, were using our land for free. And no money was being paid in.

AMY GOODMAN: An Interior Department report provided to the court refers to storage facilities plagued by problems ranging from poisonous spiders in the vicinity of stored records to mixed records strewn throughout the room with heavy rodent activity.

ELOUISE COBELL: Early on in our case, the judge issued an order for the protection of documents, and Babbitt, Secretary Babbitt, Department of Interior Secretary at that time, and Secretary Rubin, the Department of Treasury at that time, ignored it, and so the judge held them in contempt of court for not protecting the documents, because they continued to destroy documents. And you know, they could make Enron look like a shoplifting case, because what they did, the United States government, what they did is they started destroying documents willfully and they cannot — they cannot do an accounting. That’s basically it. But they spent nine years in court hoping that individual Indians, the poorest people in this country, would go away, that we would run out of money, that we wouldn’t be able to fight them. They basically took advantage of people that could not represent themselves, but we have stayed in court and we have won every single step of the way, and this announcement that we did on Monday was a call, “We’re still in court, and we will be in court.” Let me tell you. I will stay in court until the Department of Interior is accountable to individual Indians.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you tell us what made you decide to launch this case? You are the lead plaintiff in this largest class action suit ever against the federal government. What was it — the moment when you decided, “I’m going to sue the federal government and I’m going to go after this money?”

ELOUISE COBELL: Well, I don’t think I have to give you a lesson in history, but for many, many years, the United States government has taken advantage of Native American people. I live on the Blackfeet Indian reservation in Montana. And we have stories that we tell. They’re similar to the Holocaust, where Indian agents withheld rations or they black marketed rations that were supposed to go to Indian people after they put them on reservations and put a barbed wire fence around the Indian reservations, and said, “Okay, you be dependent on us, and you can’t carry arms, and you can’t hunt.”

Right near my house, ten miles from my house, is a place called Ghost Ridge, and it was where 500 Blackfeet Indians starved to death because the Indian agent, the Department of Interior, did not provide the rations that they said they were. So, women and children died, and they just dug great big old graves, and they threw bodies in these graves. And my father, as a young child, always would tell us, “Now, you remember this. Don’t you forget it. And you continue to tell the story.”

And then when I went off to college, and I became an accountant, and I became a banker, and I started understanding how other people’s money were managed, you know, that there was regulations, and there had to be accountability, and I just could not believe how the Department of Interior was managing our money. People would be almost in the same situation: didn’t have money for the basics of life, and yet they had oil wells or they had timber.

And they would come to me and I was in a position because I was the treasurer of the Blackfeet tribe. Individual Indians would come to me and ask me to help them. “Can you write letters?” I would write letters and they would not respond. I would do everything. I went to Washington. I knocked on every single door, and it didn’t matter if it was Democrat or if it didn’t matter if it was Republican, they just did not answer. And finally, I just had decided I had enough, that I was going to go out and try to find the money, to make the United States government accountable. And to this day, they continue to try to ignore court orders. And that’s what really bothers me, is because, you know, we have laws that have been imposed, such as Sarbanes-Oxley, on all corporations, to make them accountable to people. And let me tell you, the United States government has violated every single one of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Elouise Cobell, I want to thank you for being with us, and we will certainly continue to follow the details of this case, the largest class action lawsuit brought against the U.S. government in U.S. history. Elouise Cobell, former treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana, is the lead plaintiff in this case.

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