At the height of the Cobell lawsuit over the federal government’s mismanagement of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Indian trust office built a new records management facility in Lenexa, Kansas, which is a 30-minute drive from Kansas City. The American Indian Records Repository (AIRR) is state-of-the-art, but it doesn’t look it, because it is underground, in a complex of limestone caves.
The Interior Department maintains custody of federal Indian trust records as part of the trust obligation. Providing timely access to those records and insuring proper preservation are essential steps in the repatriation of information. So with Cobell settled, the time seems right for a descent into the little underworld at Lenexa.
This vast limestone cave-and-tunnel complex was mined as commercial space in the 1950s (in part from Cold War fears of atomic holocaust); they now constitute 10 percent of the business office space available in the greater Kansas City area. The subterranean setting and the inherent properties of limestone minimize exposure to the elements and moderate temperatures, substantially lowering the overall energy costs of storage. In addition, limestone is three times stronger than concrete.
The cave at Lenexa really is a cave—big stones and dark maw under a pallid hump of ground with grim sprigs of tree on top. Think of the harpooned Moby-Dick, beached in Kansas, with his mouth open.
When Debby Pafel, the astute “minder” provided for me by Interior, asks a little too loudly over the phone if her guest is “in place”—ready to be picked up—my cabbie begins to fret. Talkative thus far, he now asks not to be told what I am doing here, adding, “I’m guessing you’d have to kill me.” He leaves in haste once Pafel pulls up.
Down a long driveway we go in her rental car, then under the big stones to the tunnels. The headlights shine on craggy rock walls, and offer glimpses of alcoves used as commercial office space. There’s a subtle mildewy scent in the air. I hear a heavy whirring sound, no doubt coming from giant fans somewhere circulating the air, although it is still very humid down here.
We pull into what looks like a small parking lot. On a bare square of cement sits a cheap, round, white plastic table, flanked by two chairs of similar vintage in a pool of bluish light cast by a hanging fluorescent contraption. A few dozen feet away is the facade of the AIRR. Past the security checkpoint, the contours of the office compound follow the crags and bulges of the limestone tunnels. Each office is its own little alcove, with a roughcast patch of limestone as a back wall. A few of these irregular limestone walls have been painted, others have been left as they are, still others have been decorated with trinkets, mementos, photographs and Indian art.
efore going any deeper, some background is essential. In 1994, after more than a decade of dedicated effort by a handful of individuals and tribes, Congress passed the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act. Its aim was to overhaul Interior’s management of the Individual Indian Money trust. It created the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians within the Interior Department. Hopeful feelings ran high, but Rebecca Adamson, then president of First Nations Development Institute, was prescient: If you think it took forever to get the law passed, she said, wait until you see how long it takes to work out the regulations.
Ultimately frustrated by that very struggle, Elouise Cobell and a cohort of Blackfeet IIM account holders sued Interior for mismanagement of the IIM trust accounts. The prolonged trial demonstrated that the government’s administration of the trust over more than a century has been shoddy at best. Many records and much money are missing.
A bevy of court rulings concurred with Congress that an overhaul of the IIM accounting system was in
order. Past imbalances were to be settled. Henceforth, Interior must track, manage, and preserve IIM records with the integrity becoming a lawful trustee; money must be distributed accountably to and from the accounts; the monies, data and information due to account holders, as well as the reasons for one amount or another, must not remain a mystery to more generations of Indians.
The AIRR at Lenexa is the federal government’s effort to respond to those court orders and the mandate of Congress. By locating, centralizing, securing and indexing trust records, AIRR is now trying to give IIM account holders, tribal leaders and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Fiduciary Trust Officers more-accessible, -timely and -accurate information on trust lands, revenues and lease transactions.
Kathy Tapp, Choctaw, is the chief of the records division at AIRR. On my walk-through of the AIRR offices and archival bays, she and Rosemarie Weisz, records center director of the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Central Plains Region, explain the process for secure receipt of retired (“inactive”) Indian trust records that are still in the federal government’s keeping:
• Almost 221,000 boxes of records are currently in storage at AIRR. Approximately 1,200 boxes of records arrive at AIRR every month from different BIA and Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians offices. (Both are offshoots of the U.S. Department of Interior.)
• Each box holds a cubic foot of records, averaging 2,500 pages. Each box has a bar code, and is subject to security tracking when it leaves a facility for Lenexa, and internal security checks when it reaches AIRR. Box contents are inventoried, and the inventory is printed out for the National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees storage activities at AIRR.
• The boxes are then stored in archival-quality storage bays. The shelving in each bay is 14 boxes high and approximately the length of a football field. Each box is assigned row, unit and shelf numbers. Every shelf position, like the box that occupies it, is bar-coded.
• The bar code of a box requested by independent researchers is hand-scanned so that its location is known at all times. All independent research is monitored and recorded by AIRR security cameras. Weekly, that footage is burned to DVDs. A box required by AIRR researchers must be signed out to the staff.
• NARA has 16 archival bays for paper documents. The temperature in the bays is approximately 60 degrees, ideal for paper. Regular air filtration removes microscopic dust, filaments and other particulates. The relative humidity level is constant.
• Eventually, AIRR personnel well-trained in archival records management and the proper handling of trust documents will catalog the contents of each box. Researchers cannot view the records online. “We haven’t gotten too involved here with electronic records,” Tapp notes.
• At BIA agencies in the field, IIM beneficiaries can get information on their accounts through one of 50 BIA Fiduciary Trust Officers. When more information is needed, they forward requests to AIRR at Lenexa. The facility also fields requests from the Bureau of Indian Education, the heirs of deceased IIM beneficiaries, and courts of law. Some 90 lawsuits have been filed over tribal trust funds—tribal, as distinct from the IIM accounts—and many of them will require information from AIRR.
• AIRR fulfilled 776 of 837 information requests in the third quarter of 2011, issuing 3,877 pages as well as 34,631 images via DVD or CD in the process.
Wending through the caves and tunnels and past the craggy walls, it takes us a while to find Pafel’s car. Outside, nothing but blue sky and a few big clouds. And in time a taxi, parked somewhat farther from the cave entrance than where I was dropped off. My driver does not want to know about the many hours I’ve just spent in the bowels of the earth. He’d rather complain about his family. 0