Wednesday, December 15, 2004

How America Handles Indian Money

The following is an excerpt from my essay "What Happened to the Nation's conscience?" (

The U.S. government cannot account for billions of dollars belonging to approximately 500,000 American Indians and their heirs that have been held in trust since the 1880s. The Cobell v. Norton case ( is a class-action lawsuit that was filed to hold the government accountable. The overview page on Elouise Cobell’s Website summarizes the case as follows:

“Thousands of individual Indians generally were allotted beneficial ownership of 80- to 160-acre parcels of land in the break-up. As trustee, the government took legal title to the parcels, established an Individual Indian Trust and thereby assumed full responsibility for management of the trust lands. That included the duty to collect and disburse to the Indians any revenues generated by mining, oil and gas extraction, timber operations, grazing or similar activities.”

The government has admitted collecting at least $13 billion from Individual Indian Trust lands but doesn’t know what happened to the money or the compound interest earned over generations. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Col., the only American Indian in Congress, has depicted the government’s treatment as follows:

“Imagine if you went to your bank to withdraw money, but the teller did not know your account balance and could find no evidence your account ever existed. You ask about deposits made from the receipts from rental property you own and the bank teller has no idea [i]f those payments are being made. When you complain to the bank manager, he says he cannot help. Then you find out the bank doesn't keep account documents in file cabinets; it keeps them in plastic garbage bags or stacked exposed in leaky, rat-infested buildings. In fact, one warehouse is so overrun with rats that the bank employees will not go inside for fear of catching the Hantavirus. Certainly you would go straight to the federal authorities that oversee the banking industry, there would be an immediate and thorough investigation and the bank's executives would face several penalties, perhaps even jail time.”

According to Senator Campbell, on the very day the government attorneys were assuring a federal judge that all necessary steps were being taken to preserve all relevant documents in the ongoing class action, the U.S. Treasury Department destroyed 162 boxes of documents that may have contained the evidence needed to determine how much money the United States owes.

“Both in court and before the Congress, the Interior Department has resisted any outside independent review, has stonewalled, been held in contempt for making repeated misrepresentations to the court and has adopted a ‘fight every issue’ strategy” (Campbell).

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth declared the conduct of federal officials “fiscal and governmental irresponsibility in its purest form,” in view of the mismanagement, fraud, ineptness, dishonesty and delay.

Cobell v. Norton is one legal case among many that could be cited, not to mention the many broken treaties, represents a continuing attitude of the federal government. It should bother the American conscience.

Considering the commandments and other Biblical admonitions against such acts and attitudes by individuals and nations toward oppressed peoples, what is the Christian response?

After spending more than four decades in Christian circles and concentrating my efforts during the past 10 years in trying to raise awareness on issues and developments in Indian country, why do I find a general disinterest among church leaders and members?

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