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.

The revelation did not exactly calm fears in Indian country
about the veracity of the Historical Accounting Project. “If the
normal bar for trust accounting is 100, this project started out at
50,” claims Harper. “Now it’s at 2. Ultimately, it will be down to
0.” He pauses. “This whole thing is an exercise in nothing.”

On September 10, the DoI said it would not comply with a
federal judge’s order to turn over electronic trust data to the
Cobell plaintiffs.

In Lenexa, the trucks keep rolling in. The work continues.

John Goff is a senior editor at CFO.

Divide and Conquer

While the federal government has been managing tribal
lands since the 1820s, it didn’t take over as trustee for individual
Indians until 1887. That’s when the U.S. Congress passed
the General Allotment Act, aka the Dawes Act. That legislation, ostensibly an attempt to assimilate Native Americans, gave each member of a recognized tribe up to 160 acres of land, to be held in trust by the government. The government then sold off the surplus acreage. By the time the allotment period was halted in 1934, Washington had auctioned off roughly 90 million surplus acres — nearly two-thirds of Indian country — to non-Indians.

The remaining 56 million acres (10 million for individual
Indians and 46 million for tribes) still make up one of the largest
land trusts in the world. Oil leases and grazing rights, among
other things, generated about $800 million in proceeds in fiscal
2006. The money went to 250 tribes and roughly 4 million
individual Indians.

Not surprisingly, the Administration would like to get out
of the Indian-trust business, handing that responsibility back
to tribes. Some tribes, such as the Confederated Salish and
Kootenai Tribe in Montana, already manage their leases.

But not all tribes want to see the government abandon
its role as trustee. They point out that on the Great Plains, for
instance, leases come mostly from grazing rights. Negotiating
a single lease with dozens of lessors can get extremely complicated.
Says John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress
of American Indians: “The allotment holders rely on the
Bureau of Indian Affairs to pull together a whole lot of allotments
into a single grazing range.”

What’s more, some tribal members believe poorer
tribes — which is to say most of them — do not currently have
the resources or trust expertise to manage the leases. They believe the United States still has an obligation to look out for
the interests of those tribes, many of which gave up their land
at gunpoint. “Millions of acres of land were transferred to the
U.S. for settlement, and in return the U.S. promised to provide
health care, education, and economic development,” says
Michael Marchand, chairman of the Business Council of the
Confederated Tribes of the Colville (Washington) Reservation.
“This is what established the trust relationship. Now the U.S.
wants to [renege] on these agreements.” — J.G.

Discuss

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *