The Long Trail

The government's tallying of Indian trust money may well be the most ambitious accounting project in U.S. history. It's also the most controversial.

Deep underneath an industrial
park in Lenexa, Kansas — not far from
Shawnee Mission Lake and Arapaho
Park — the work goes on. In a vast underground
warehouse, historians and archivists
carefully unpack endless rows of boxes. The
cartons, sent from far-flung federal warehouses and
obscure outposts on Indian reservations, contain financial
records collected over the years by government agencies.

Some of the items date to the late 19th century, back to the days
of Indian chiefs Looking Glass, Red Cloud, and Gall. Once
indexed, the documents — mostly leases and bills — are coded and entered into a government computer system. To date, workers
in Lenexa have gone through some 160,000 boxes, processing
nearly 40 million coded pages.

Those pages, sometimes little more than bits of paper, are
pieces of a puzzle — a puzzle that the Department of the Interior
(DoI) dubs The Historical Accounting Project for Individual
Indian Money (IIM) Accounts. The purpose of the massive project
is to reconcile, for the first time, individual trust accounts
managed for decades and decades by the federal government on
behalf of Native Americans.

By the time the project is completed in 2011, the
accounting will have consumed $274 million over
eight years. That dwarfs audits of large publicly traded
companies, which tend to cost about $10 million.
It is, noted former Secretary of the Interior Gale
Norton, “an accounting project of unprecedented
proportions.”

It is also wildly controversial. Elouise Cobell, a
former treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation who has
sued the DoI to force this historical reckoning of the
individual Indian trusts (Cobell v. Kempthorne),
claims that more than $100 billion may be missing
from the individual accounts. But Ross Swimmer,
who heads up the Interior Department agency overseeing
the project (as special trustee at the Office of
the Special Trustee for American Indians, or OST),
believes the amount owed to individual Indians is
far less — more likely in the millions than billions.

The assertion has not gone over well in Indian
country. Some tribal leaders claim the Historical
Accounting Project has nothing to do with history
or accounting. By their lights, the Interior Department
is gaming the system, intent on producing a
low figure — one that will cow litigants into settling
on the cheap. “This accounting was intended to give
trustees a chance to assess their claims,” says Keith
Harper, class counsel for the Cobell litigants. “It’s not
supposed to be for limiting liability.”

Things turned ugly in March. That’s when the
White House offered to pay $7 billion over 10 years
to settle individual and tribal claims. The money
would also help pay for a DoI computer-security
upgrade, extinguish the Cobell class-action suit and
108 tribal suits, and prohibit any future trust-fund
litigation. “The offer was seen by all tribes as an
insult,” notes Michael Marchand, chairman of the
business council of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville
(Washington) Reservation. “It was a clear signal that the Administration
has no interest in settling anything.”

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