Shooting Indians in a Barrel: The Trust Scandal

· Edgewise, Paleoblogs, Republicans

It’s nearly as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Gale Norton’s Department of the Interior is so far winning the Bush Administration’s fight against the Indians. A ten-year-old struggle to right 118 years of wrongs against American Indians is at an impasse with the Bush government holding most of the trump cards. The fight, embodied in the class-action lawsuit, Cobell v. Norton, has been likened to the legendary lawsuit in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House that brought nothing but trouble and despair to generations of family heirs.
Norton’s Interior department, refusing to accept defeat after losing the lawsuit, filed an appeal, which it also lost, and is now seeking to remove the judge who ruled for the Indians. And if that ploy doesn’t work, there’s the Dear Tribal Leader letters dated Jan. 26, and signed by Associate Deputy Interior Secretary James Cason, telling the Indians that Interior plans to pay the $7.1 million in court and lawyer fees they were ordered to pay through cuts in various Indian programs.
The lawsuit, filed in 1996, came out of Indian tribes’ attempt to find and recover billions of dollars in revenues from government leases of their lands since 1887. Since that year, 11 million acres of Indian tribal land have been held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, within the Department of the Interior, which was to collect and distribute over $300 million in annual revenues from agriculture, oil, mining, and timber leases on the Indian lands. In fact, an audit of the Interior department’s Individual Indian Monies (IIM) trust revealed that no records could be located before 1973, and between 1973 and 1992 more than $2.4 billion in revenues owed to Indians was missing or unaccounted for. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who has presided over the decade-long suit and appeal, told one Interior witness in the trial, “You know any banker would be in jail for handling funds like this, don’t you?”
And if you don’t think the Bush Administration is out to get every last dime they can cheat from Indians going into the future take a look at the article by D.C. Attorney Lee Helfrich, writing for Nieman Watchdog who notes that:

Both Senator John McCain (R. Ariz.) and Representative Richard Pombo (R. Ca.) have introduced legislation that would preclude Indians from acting collectively by filing class actions. Instead each Indian will be left alone to seek relief from the federal government–no level playing field for them. The bills only mandate that the government consider the money that actually “passed through” an individual Indian account in paying on a claim, not what Interior left uncollected for a century because of its “honor system.”

That “honor system” allowed gas, oil, and mining companies to pay what they wanted–including nothing–for public and Indian land leases.
Over at Daily Kos, Wampum blogger MB Williams points out that the Abramoff influence buying and campaign contribution scandal is part of a bigger picture that involves Bush’s cabinet appointees and Republican legislators:

The story of Jack Abramoff’s buying of influence goes well beyond a few Congressional players. While those relationships are key to the story, they’re secondary to his cozy relationship with CREA director Italia Federici, her former boss, Sec. of the Interior, Gale Norton, and Deputy Sec. Steven Griles, and this seedy gang’s take-over of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

Williams points out that Republican attempts to “settle” the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit at the expense of Indian plaintiffs is likely to be helped by the current characterization of “Abramoff tribes”:

McCain and Pombo are once again pushing for a settlement, and in the increasingly hostile environment for Indians due to success in portraying Abramoff’s tribal clients as villains, not victims, they’ll most likely get it, at rock-bottom prices.