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Fix American Indian trust fund mess

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By not appealing the American Indian trust fund case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Interior Department now must put up or shut up: Fix its computer system and pay the American Indians what they're owed, or accept federal court supervision of its management of the accounts.

For more than a century, Uncle Sam has controlled many American Indian assets, including mineral deposits, oil reserves, water rights, grazing leases and the like. In theory, the government was supposed to manage the accounts for the American Indians' benefit through a trust arrangement. But over the decades, the BIA (which is part of the Interior Department) and the U.S. Treasury badly bungled the job, mingling money from the various accounts and losing track of how much individual Indians were owed.

No wonder the American Indians finally sued. The case was brought in 1996 by the Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund and former Denver attorney Dennis Gingold, on behalf of Montana resident and Blackfeet Elouise Cobell and several thousand other American Indians nationwide.

The Clinton administration promised to clean up the mess, but an internal BIA memo leaked earlier this year admitted the effort had 'imploded.'

Meantime, the Interior Department kept losing in federal court, with judges repeatedly siding with the plaintiffs.

In this light, the Bush administration's decision not to challenge the court rulings may indicate that the government finally is willing to give the American Indians what it owes them: a correct accounting of what should have been paid in the past, and guarantees that the trust funds will be properly managed in the future.

That monumental policy transformation would be most welcome.

While we have expressed concern about Interior Secretary Gale Norton's environmental policies, there is no doubt that Norton takes her responsibilities for American Indian issues very seriously.

The key worry is if Norton can deliver. The trust-fund mess is so long-standing, and so convoluted, that it would take Hercules to untangle it.

But the effort to sort out the accounts and pay the American Indians what they've been owed, in some cases for generations, is long overdue.

Norton and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill must make the task a top personal priority.

Editor's note: The editorial on the trust fund mess appeared in the Denver (Colo.) Post June 4.