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Call in the debt

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A conclusion to Cobell v. Kempthorne is in sight. The accountability of the U.S. government has been of chief concern to hundreds of thousands of defrauded Indian people, some of whom died poor waiting for this day.

The plaintiffs, represented for a dozen years by the tenacious Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation, seek acknowledgement by the federal government that it grossly neglected its fiduciary duty to Native landowners over the last century. They want a complete accounting of all Individual Indian Money accounts. Their $58 billion claim against the United States represents what they say the government earned from failing to distribute drilling, grazing and mining royalties to IIM account holders. The figure is reasonable, Cobell said, and ''represents the minimum harm that Indians have suffered under our broken trust system.''

Considering that generations of non-Indians literally extracted immense wealth from the earth beneath the feet of Indian people and became powerful economic players in America, the plaintiffs' claim is more than fair. $58 billion is conservative, even generous when one considers how the West was really won - inhumanely, via theft and politics.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of the Interior have used more than $300 million of taxpayer dollars and the resources of the Justice Department to defend themselves. In March of last year, the government offered a $7 billion partial settlement described as an investment in Indian country. The letter by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne also demands Congress relieve the government's liability for any future IIM claims.

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Cobell's disgust could not be restrained. ''Many will express shock or dismay,'' she wrote in a December 2007 Perspective piece for Indian Country Today, ''that the executive branch has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on favored accountants and statisticians with nothing to show for it while we, as a nation, are at war overseas.'' The proposal was quickly rejected, and rightly so. After a decade of pouring over details, the defendants seemed to have forgotten the point of the lawsuit: to force the government to admit malfeasance, then get it to clean up the mess.

Whether the intention of the plaintiffs will be realized remains to be seen, even at this eleventh hour. While Interior strongly, and bald-facedly, insists that the accounting process has been thorough and successful, Judge James Robertson in January declared accounting of the Indian trust accounts ''impossible.'' There is quite a bit of distance between successful and impossible, as Cobell and fellow plaintiffs have argued now for well over a decade.

Cobell has been a stark lesson in government mismanagement at every level. Congress in 1994 created the Office of the Special Trustee to oversee Indian trust reform, but even internal critics say its methods are folly. Despite this instability, the OST budget and staff more than doubled during the Bush administration. According to the Government Accountability Office, top officials at OST received nearly a quarter of a million dollars in awards and bonuses while actual reform remains elusive.

Americans have become accustomed to government scandal, their wariness especially tested in the last eight years. We're not certain there is much shock left to express, but the outcome of this class-action suit should open the eyes of even the most patriotic, flag-wearing Americans. The government will finally be made to reach into its pockets to pay for a century of swindling, denial, and trust mismanagement.

With crises in housing and energy development and a recession looming, Americans are personally realizing the loss of homes and land. The credibility of the United States has been diminished not only by unnecessary war and domestic civil liberties violations, but by its systematic ruin of its federal trust obligation to Indian peoples. Cobell addresses a scandal that spans a century. All Americans should be outraged. Ultimately, the IIM trust award is a debt that the whole nation will pay.