“I see Native people dying every day because they can’t afford health insurance,” Elouise Cobell said over the phone in mid-January from Washington, DC, as she prepared to testify against Interior Secretary Gale Norton in a contempt trial.
Cobell’s words evoke an image of reservation life all too familiar to our jaundiced eyes. Many of us tend to think of it as a historical injustice: Native lands stolen by colonizers, Native peoples relegated to marginalized poverty despite the rich resources on their lands. When she was treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation in the late 1970s, Cobell saw this dynamic in action: She knew that some of these desperately poor people lived on, and owned, lands with oil wells, grazing rights and timber sales that should be generating substantial income. Yet the accounting records sent her by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which manages the funds in trust, made no sense.
The trust was set up in 1887, when Native people were judged incompetent to manage the income from their lands. The Interior Department was charged with managing the lands while the Treasury Department would oversee the trust, invest the funds and compensate the lands’ owners. “In a way, the US government has been a real estate broker, buyer, bank and accounts-payable agent,” says Cassandra Sweet, a Seattle journalist who has written about Indian treaty rights issues.
What’s clear is that none of these functions were performed very well. “Probates were backed up, so people were dying before they got their inheritance,” says Cobell. One account worth $1 million was said to belong to a tribal member whose address Interior had never updated. Meanwhile, “one woman I know has seven oil wells on her property, and she gets about $1,000 a year.” In 1996 Cobell met with then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Attorney General Janet Reno to ask why the accounts being managed for Blackfeet members were in such disarray; when Washington brushed aside her complaints, Cobell went home and filed a lawsuit.
Cobell’s suit, a class action now representing nearly half a million Indians from dozens of tribes, made two demands. One, that the trust system be fixed–that is, made transparent and be required to operate according to generally accepted banking principles. Two, that a historical accounting be made of the money lost over the trust’s 110-year life.
Trial number one, to fix the system, has revealed a record that dwarfs Enron both in the level of corruption and the amount of money involved, with an estimated $100 billion loss over the century-plus life of the trust. The means were breathtakingly simple: Funds from the lands managed by the trust were dumped into Treasury’s general fund, using an accounting code not unique to those properties, and thus turned into a slush fund that was apparently used to bail out Chrysler and New York City during its fiscal crisis in the 1970s, among other purposes over the course of the past century.