The Kennewick Man Hearings resume as eight scientists sue the government to study 9,000-year-old bones that Native American tribes claim as an ancestor. (6/19/01)
NewsHour's Special Reports on Race Relations
Land is This Land?
What would you do if someone borrowed something from you but waited so long to return it, they forgot what you lent them in the first place?
That is the predicament facing thousands of American Indians whose ancestors allowed the U.S. government to rent millions of acres of their tribal land.
Over many decades, the government lost track of who owns what land and has not consistently paid the Native American families and tribal councils what they're due.
Now the Secretary of Interior, Gale Norton, is the latest government official to anger the federal judge charged with sorting out one of the worst accounting problems in U.S. history as well as a complicated case of government negligence.
In the early 1800s, the national government took over portions of American Indian tribal lands and rented them to ranchers, miners and loggers who wanted to use the land's resources.
Congress passed the Dawes Act of 1887 to set up a "trust" or formal system of paying Native Americans money the government earned from the use of their land.
The Dawes Act divided the land among individual Indian families who were then paid for the share assigned to them.
The government also bought several million acres but Indian families were paid very little as traditional Indian culture does not view land as something that can be bought or sold.
About 47 million acres of tribal land is now held in government trust, mostly in the Dakotas, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona.
Accounting for the land
Each year, most Indian families are paid for the land that was allotted to them. However, as family members die and others marry, it becomes harder for the government to account for who owns what land.
Many documents held by the Department of the Interior (DOI), which oversees the trust, have been lost or destroyed. Payments to families have changed from year to year with no explanation.
After years of failed attempts by both the government and independent accounting firms to fix the system, Eloise Cobell of the Blackfeet Indians in Montana said "enough is enough."
She is the lead plaintiff in a massive class action lawsuit filed against the DOI in 1996 on behalf of over 300,000 accounts belonging to individual Native Americans. Over 1,400 accounts belonging collectively to tribal councils are also suing the DOI in a separate court case.
Ms. Cobell claims that the government owes these account holders at least $10 billion.
A Tough Job
The U.S. District judge responsible for Ms. Cobell's lawsuit has already decided the government has not kept adequate records and did not pay the right amount of money to Indian families as compensation.
The judge has held former high-ranking officials of the DOI in contempt of court for not providing needed documentation and current officials face potential contempt charges as well.
The court has been trying for six years to find ways to fix the system and determine what damages might be awarded.
Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton has proposed a solution. She wants to create a separate government agency to reform the trust accounts.
Most Native Americans don't support the creation of a new government agency--they want an independent firm to take charge of the system.
Judge Royce Lamberth, who is presiding over the case, has issued a new decision, further criticizing the DOI for not fixing the mismanaged land trust system. The judge is so disappointed in Secretary Norton for not doing a better job producing the necessary records, he found her in contempt of court for not complying with his earlier orders.
In his decision, Judge Lamberth said the Interior Department did "virtually nothing" to fix the ongoing problems and named a new special monitor to oversee the status of the trust reform and provide the court with periodic progress reports.
"Because of the secretary's systemic failure as a trustee-delegate, the federal government regularly issues payments to beneficiaries-- of their own money-- in erroneous amounts, " Judge Lamberth wrote.
Undoubtedly, Eloise Cobell and the other Native Americans who launched the legal case will be hopeful that the stern instructions of the judge will bring them one step closer to a better accounting system for their land.
do you think? How
do you think the government should handle Indian lands?
--Contributed by Maureen Hoch
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