Cobell v Norton
Page 2 (includes 3rd PDF file) of the 09/09/2001 cover story in Parade Magazine; about Elouise Cobell and the class-action suit against the government regarding Indian Trust Monies.
THE BROKEN PROMISE /continued
But the Indians never got what was owed them.
At one of the endless meetings she attended to try to rectify matters, Cobell actually heard a Treasury Department official admit that millions and millions of Indian dollars were being forward-ed by the Department of the Interior with no instructions. "So we just put it in the general fund," said the official.
Cobell said she eventually discovered that the money apparently had been used, among other notable examples, to help bail out New York City during its 1975 fiscal crisis, to save the Chrysler Corporation from going under and even to reduce the national debt.
On assignment for PARADE, I recently visited Cobell. Along with her husband, she has a 320-acre allotment ranch with about 100 head of cattle in Glacier County, which encompasses much of the Blackfeet reservation and ranks as the 35th poorest county in the U.S. This is where she grew up in a house with no phone, electricity or running water and where she began her education in 1950 in a one-room grade school.
As it happened, Cobell's teacher subscribed to the Sunday New York Times, which she shared with her students. "It would arrive a month late, but it ex- posed me to a world I never knew ex- isted," Cobell told me. "It gave me a chance to dream a little."
She went on to high school, which required a daily 50-mile round-trip by bus. Then Cobell made a daring move to the nearest city, Great Falls, to enroll in a two-year business college, where she specialized in accounting. "I wanted to learn more and to help out at home," she recalled. "My dream was to buy my mother a new dress."
Cobell cut short further studies at Montana State University in 1968 to return home and care for her mother, who had terminal cancer. Then her father died.
Because of her accounting background, the Blackfeet Tribal Council appointed Cobell the tribe's treasurer in 1976. "I remembered, as a little girl," she said, "the elders would come to my father's house and wonder where the money was. You lived with it all the time. But they didn't know what to ask. They had no information, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs was something to be feared. You felt so powerless."
She already had seen the local office of the BIA in action in a college work-study program. "I saw people treated very badly," she recalled. "People sitting all day on hard benches, with no rest rooms. Some were begging for money, for food, for clothes for their children. I would tell my mother, and she'd say, 'Don't make waves.'"
Under the BIA's management of the so-called Individual Indian Money trust fund, Native Americans never were informed who had leased their land or for what purpose, how much the lease was for or how long the lease was to run. On occasion, the Treasury Department would mail checks to individuals for a pittance, with no accounting or explanation of any kind. (In addition to the Individual Indian Money trust, the government manages a separate trust fund covering more than 300 tribes.)
"As the tribe's treasurer," Cobell said, "I tried to get a handle on everything. I found that the BIA's investment of Blackfeet tribal trust funds was accruing negative interest. How could this be? Under the law, this money was only supposed to be invested in the safest government securities. But when I asked about this at a meeting with the BIA supervisor, he just stared at me and said, 'Why don't you learn how to read a statement?' It was so humiliating.
"Later—a lot later—I discovered what had happened. The BIA had taken a big chunk of money from the Blackfeet, loaned it to another tribe for whatever reason and forgot to replace it. After all, it was not their money, and we were just dumb Indians."
After getting nowhere at local and regional BIA offices, Cobell tried the Interior Department in Washington, D.C. And still got nowhere. "I did spreadsheets," she said, "and saw huge gaps where oil and gas companies that had leased out land weren't paying anything. There was no accounting system in place, so the Interior Department had no idea who was paying and who wasn't. They didn't care."
Then, in 1989, Rep. Mike Synar— an Oklahoma Democrat with a large Native American constituency—helped to arrange a meeting at the White House under the first Bush Administration with officials of the Office of Management and Budget. Cobell was invited, as well as some outside experts, including a prominent banking attorney named Dennis Gingold. Very little came out of it, except that Cobell remembered Gingold acidly saying at one point to the government men, "I'm amazed you guys haven't been sued."
In 1994, Synar got Congress to authorize the Presidential appointment of a special trustee to provide a full accounting of money owed to the Blackfeet, Cherokees, Apaches, Winnebagos and other tribes located west of the Mississippi. But the new Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton Administration, Bruce Babbitt, so hindered the special trustee, a banking executive named Paul Homan, that Homan finally quit in disgust in 1999, accusing Babbitt of stripping him of the authority he needed to do his job.
And, despite repeated attempts to see Babbitt herself, Cobell never did. "He wouldn't meet with me," she said. "I was told he didn't have the time. All I got were empty assurances that mismanagement of our trust funds was a top priority."
Cobell already had reached the breaking point after meeting Attorney General Janet Reno at a conference where Reno was the main speaker. Cobell sketched out what she was going through, and Reno invited her to Washington. But when Cobell arrived in February 1996 with high hopes, Reno also declined to see her and relegated her to underlings. She was treated with such rudeness and condescension, Cobell told me, that "a lawsuit was the only option I had left."
She went back to Dennis Gingold and asked the attorney if he would accept the case. He agreed, telling her, "We cannot allow this to happen. Our government can't operate like this." But Gingold warned her that it would be extremely costly. Cobell said she'd get the money somehow. And she did, pleading her cause to private foundation after foundation, eventually raising nearly $8 million. During this period, to her astonishment, she received a John D. MacArthur "genius award" and immediately threw the $300,000 grant into the pot.
The class-action suit representing 500,000 Native Americans was filed in the District of Columbia on June 10, 1996. The Justice Department, representing the Interior and Treasury Departments, declined to enter into settlement talks. The presiding federal district judge, Royce Lamberth, twice ordered Interior and Treasury to produce documents involving the Individual Indian Money trust fund. Despite promises to do so, a special investigator appointed by Judge Lamberth discovered that, during the course of the proceedings, Interior had in fact been destroying documents. What's more, Treasury officials had shredded 162 cartons of ledgers listing transactions and disbursements plus records of uncashed checks—some 100 years old— that never reached their intended Indian recipients.
On Aug. 10, 1999, after holding Interior Secretary Babbitt and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt of court, Judge Lamberth fined them a total of $625,000, which the U.S. paid with our tax dollars.
On Dec. 21, 1999, Judge Lamberth ruled that the government had breached its sacred trust duties across the board. He ordered the Interior and Treasury Departments to file quarterly reports detailing efforts to reform the trust system and decreed court supervision of these efforts. The Justice Department appealed on the grounds that the judge had over-stepped his authority. But a federal appeals panel of judges unanimously upheld Lamberth's ruling.
This May, the Bush Administration abandoned an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. What remains now, in the second phase of Cobell's lawsuit, is to determine how much the Native American plaintiffs will receive. Some estimates range from $20 billion to as much as $40 billion.
Whether the government will continue the battle or begin serious settlement talks remains up in the air. In June, the House Appropriations Committee said it had no interest in funding more litigation, which so far has cost the U.S. more than $31 million.
Meanwhile, Elouise Cobell has dedicated herself to helping Native Americans achieve economic self-sufficiency. She is the founder and current chair-person of the Blackfeet National Bank—the first bank in the nation owned by Indians.
In Montana, when Cobell drives from her ranch to her bank office in the woebegone town of Browning, with an unemploy-ment rate as high as 70 percent, she passes a sign. It marks the site of the government's first Indian office on the Blackfeet reservation, under agent John Young. It says that this is where, in the terrible winter of 1884, 500 Blackfeet Indians died of starvation.
"The truth is," Cobell told me, "that agent Young kept the rations he had on hand for white people." She pointed to a ridge opposite the sign, where a trench was dug to bury the Blackfeet bodies. "We call it Ghost Ridge," she said. "I think of those souls every day. I'm fighting for them too."
PARADE MAGAZINE •SEPTEMBER 9,2001 •PAGE 5
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