USA: The Great American Land Row

Publisher Name: 
BBC News Online

American Indians are embroiled in a $137bn lawsuit
with the US Government over land royalties. The saga,
which has been going on for seven years, rests on a
judge's decision, which is expected shortly.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an arm of the US
Department of the Interior, is being sued in a class
action on behalf of 280,000 American Indians.
The plaintiff, Eloise Cobell, a 56-year-old Blackfeet
Indian from Browning, Montana, claims billions went
missing because records were not kept properly and
trusts were pilfered by the US Government.

The dispute dates back to the 1887 Dawes Act, which
seized Indian land - much of it rich in natural
resources - and gave it to white-owned companies to

The idea was for them to be "compensated" in
perpetuity for the use of their land.

The author of the Act claimed land ownership would
"civilise" the Indians, but disputes arose almost

To be civilised wear civilised clothes,
cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in
Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink
whiskey and own property.
Congressman Henry Dawes
Author of Dawes Act 1887
Mrs Cobell, a trained accountant, told BBC News
Online: "I remember, as a child, hearing people
complaining about not getting their cheques. They
would go to the BIA office to complain and they'd be
treated like dirt."
She launched the class action in 1996 and has already
ruffled some very illustrious feathers.

Held in contempt

In 1999 a judge examining the case cited two of
President Clinton's Cabinet Secretaries, Bruce Babbitt
and Robert Rubin, for contempt because of their
departments' failure to produce key documents.

Then in 2002 Judge Royce Lamberth found President
Bush's Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, in
contempt for her failure to comply with earlier court

Now, after a 44-day trial, Judge Lamberth is
considering two options.

He could accept the BIA's plan for accounting of the
money in the trust accounts or he could agree to a far
more radical approach suggested by Mrs Cobell's team.
Washington did not believe the Indians capable of
exploiting the land themselves.

Mrs Cobell said: "They said we were stupid,
incompetent and dumb and couldn't run our own
financial affairs. They said they would manage it to
the highest fiduciary standards."

But she said that in the intervening years the records
of these accounts, known as the Individual Indian
Money (IIM) Trusts, became shambolic.

The federal authorities lost track of the account
holders and destroyed or mislaid records, said Mrs

As a result hundreds of thousands of Native Americans
allegedly never got money which was owed to them.

Mrs Cobell, and the team of lawyers and accountants
working for her, said the trusts had not been audited
since 1887 and she estimated up to $137bn had gone

Some of the tribes affected
Cherokee (Oklahoma)
Sioux/Lakota (South Dakota)
Navajo (Utah)
Blackfeet (Montana)
Cheyenne (South Dakota)
Arapaho (Wyoming)
Chippewa/Ojibwa (Minnesota)
Nez Perce/Nimi'ipuu (Idaho)
She said some of the Indian families relied on the
money to pay their grocery bills.
Mrs Cobell said the government tightly regulated
privately-run trust funds but added: "When the shoe is
on the other foot they don't have to comply with any
law. They have run our trusts like a bank totally out
of control.

"This is worse than Enron or WorldCom. It's the
biggest scandal since the Teapot Dome affair in the

Mrs Cobell said: "It's ironic that the US Government,
which has been beating up on the Swiss over Jewish
money from the 1940s, was responsible for perpetrating
an even bigger outrage on the Indians."

She is hoping, with 2004 being an election year,
Indians in several key swing states - such as Nevada,
Arizona and Montana - can bring pressure to bear on
the Bush administration to settle the dispute and
agree for the government to pay the missing money.

But BIA spokesman Dan DuBray said the figures given by
the plaintiff were "fanciful" and he said the case had
been "infected with hyperbole and bad feeling".

Mr DuBray, whose own father is a Sioux with an IIM
account of his own, said if the judge agreed to the
plaintiff's plan it would take 10 years and cost
$2.4bn to check all transactions.

He said this type of "archaeological accounting" would
not benefit those in Indian country, some of whose IIM
accounts earned only a few cents a year.

American Indian decline
In 1492 it is estimated there were six million Indians
in the territory of what became the United States. By
1900, decimated by disease, starvation and war, that
number had fallen to 237,000
Mr DuBray said: "There is no question there is
hundreds of years of poor history between the
government and the Indians. But this case is not to do
with Wounded Knee or the Trail of Tears."
He said: "The plaintiffs have suggested that we used
Indian trust money to pay off the national debt, and
to bail out Chrysler in the 1970s. But there is no
truth to any of these grandiose allegations."

Vernon Bellecourt, the director of international
affairs with the American Indian Movement, said they
backed Mrs Cobell's lawsuit and added: "It's
outrageous that this has been allowed to happen."

Speaking from a sun dance ceremony in Montana, Mr
Bellecourt told BBC News Online: "We have been the
victims of an American holocaust."

"They took our land away - sacred land, like the Black
Hills (in South Dakota) - and now we find out they
have stolen our money."

History of the dispute

1877: Battle of the Little Big Horn, followed by
defeat of Crazy Horse and end of Indian Wars

1887: Dawes Act leads to land being parcelled up and
sold off

1996: Eloise Cobell launches lawsuit, claiming the
trusts have been mismanaged

2002: The Department of the Interior is ordered to
account for all the money

2003: Judge will decide whose accounting plan to adopt

Under the Act the land was divided into plots of
between 160 and 180 acres.
Each Indian family was assigned a parcel of land,
which was alien to their culture in which all land
belonged to the tribe.


AMP Section Name:Human Rights