Skip to main content

Cobell: 'Sometimes you have to fight'

To be honest, I am not a big fan of George W. Bush's foreign policy, but I fully agree with one point the president repeatedly made in the months before the Iraq war.

You remember, the president told us "sometimes you have to fight." Sometimes, Mr. Bush said, the other guy just doesn't get it; that he needs a punch in the stomach to get the message.

That's just the way a group of American Indians have been feeling for almost seven years in a federal court in Washington. We've been punching away at Uncle Sam, determined to get a full accounting of the monies that the federal government should have been placing in trust accounts for us for more than 116 years. Billions of dollars - money that belongs to some of the nation's poorest people - have been diverted from our accounts.

After repeated victories in the courts we're getting close to securing that accounting. But to our surprise, some lawmakers in the nation's capital are now demanding we settle our dispute with the federal government outside the courtroom.

Mediate the issues, Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, urged in an April 6 letter to our lawyers and Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Attorney General John Ashcroft. But the truth is we've tried to reach an out-of-court settlement with the government before and the Bush administration's negotiators have refused to be realistic about what it will take to make our accounts whole. They seem to assume that there's little wrong with their trust operations.

Meanwhile, our battle continues in the federal courts in Washington. I was back in Courtroom 21 recently, sitting in on the first day of testimony in the latest phase of our long-running lawsuit. I left fighting mad. Paul M. Homan, a nationally recognized banking expert, was to testify about the weaknesses in the government's plan to reform the badly broken Indian trust system.

There's no doubt that Homan, the former president of a prominent bank in Washington, knows what he is talking about when it comes to trust operations. He was the chief examiner of federal banks for the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency for years. He personally supervised the closing of 22 national banks when they became insolvent and when he left government service; he supervised the rehabilitation of several large banks that were teetering on the brink of failure.

Equally important, he was the first person named special trustee for the Indian trust accounts, overseeing the Interior Department's handling of the accounts for nearly three years. President Bill Clinton selected him to handle that job and he did it with such candor that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt finally fired him for pressing his argument so strongly.

Now you'd think that Homan would be just the type of guy that a Republican administration would have loved to talk about the ills in the Indian trust accounts. But no, the Bush administration's Justice Department did everything it could to disqualify Homan from testifying as the expert witness he clearly is.

Once Judge Royce Lamberth rejected those arguments, the government continued to question every statement Homan made about the problems of the trust.

Homan proved a powerful witness, describing the administration's plans to resolve the trust problems as "a waste of time." Instead of trying once again to repair the present system, Homan advocated moving the trust operations out of the Interior Department and placing them under a court-appointed receiver. To me, the flap over Homan's testimony is precisely why the fight over Indian trust reform is an unending battle. We're tired of having federal officials, be they democrats or republicans, attempt to silence those who would tell the truth about the horrible job that the federal government has done taking care of our money.

As both Campbell and Inouye put it in their letter: "Since at least the late 1980s, the Congress, the Executive and the Indian tribes have understood that the Indian trust system is broken and badly in need of repair." Note their words: both Congress and the Executive, democratic and republican administrations, have failed Indian trust account holders.

All we want is what a federal judge and a federal appeals court have said we are entitled to: a full accounting of our money. It's hardly a novel or a radical idea. It's what every bank and every trust company in the nation has to give its clients. When the children of America's first citizens cannot get such a basic request, then something is wrong without our government.

As George Bush would say, it's time for us to fight.

A member of the Blackfeet Nation, Elouise Cobell is the lead plaintiff in Cobell v. Norton, a lawsuit filed in 1996 seeking an accounting of trust fund monies held by the federal government for American Indians.