The failure to accurately report the status of thousands of individual Indian trust fund accounts, the lack of legally mandated "government-to-government" consultations with Indian leaders and the Interior Department's misapplication of a court order has many in Indian country wondering if the Indian trust fund scandal will ever be resolved.
As federal judge Royce C. Lamberth considers placing Interior Secretary Gale Norton on the witness stand to face possible contempt of court charges for her actions, Indian Country Today surveyed 450 American Indian Opinion Leaders on what they thought.
In the survey, respondents were asked how confident they are that the Department of the Interior will be able to reconcile the individual Indian trust fund accounts. Sixty percent indicated "No confidence at all," 30 percent stated "Not very confident" and 10 percent were "Unsure." The lack of confidence, stated David Liberty (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation) is due to, "so many records [being] destroyed that the feds will never be able to give an accurate accounting of the fund."
Respondents were also asked to explain Interior Secretary Gale Norton's actions in disconnecting all Interior computer systems from the Internet. Joining the 65 percent that indicated "contempt of court" was Jonny BearCub Stiffarm, Esq. (Assiniboine) who stated: "It is like Norton's shop said 'Okay Judge. You want a shut down. We'll show you a shut down, and to H___ with those Indians who need their money. We'll show them for trying to demand justice."
Twenty-six percent indicated that they "did not know" how to explain Secretary Gale Norton's actions. Respondents thought it could have been due to a simple computer mistake, bureaucracy at its finest or plain stupidity. A mere nine percent thought that it was a "misunderstanding of a court order."
An overwhelming 96 percent also indicated that the federal government should consult with Native leaders on all proposals to fix the Indian trust fund accounts. Judith Phaup (Eastern Cherokee) stated her opinion this way. "The ONLY way for any good to come of this would be to allow those who best understand the needs and rights of their people to be consulted and allowed to officially monitor and regularly report the progress, or lack of it, to both Indian concerns and the media." A scant four percent indicated that Native leaders should not be consulted as they thought leaders are more interested in obtaining the money for themselves than for the tribal members.
When asked to rate Secretary Gale Norton's handling of Indian-related issues responses were not encouraging, as 37 percent indicated "not effective at all" and 47 percent indicated "not very effective." Fourteen percent of respondents shared the view of Jackie Brown (Delaware) that Secretary Norton "maintains status quo." Brown stated, "I don't see any difference in what Gale Norton is doing from her predecessors and it hasn't solved the problem." A meager two percent thought that Secretary Norton has been "somewhat effective."
Sharing the frustration of many American Indians, D.J. Vanas (Odawa) commented, "The incompetence and indifference the Department of Interior has shown in this matter should be a complete embarrassment. This is no different than any other blind-side attack on Native rights and sovereignty. Is there any judge in America that would let an Indian or a tribe off for these excuses?"
To join the circle of American Indian Opinion Leaders send name, tribal affiliation and email to email@example.com.