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One family's Individual Indian Money account odyssey

Researching the accounts

When we opened the first box of Individual Indian Money (IIM) account records down in Fort Worth, Texas in the fall of 1998, my mother and aunt cried. As a family we had been searching for these documents for over 60 years. My grandfather and his brothers looked for IIM account records of their father, Moses Bruno. Four generations of our family argued with Indian Agents at the BIA in Shawnee and Anadarko. Always it was the same. "We have no records," the Agents would say. But we knew better.

In December of 1999, as a result of the Cobell lawsuit, the BIA was ordered to begin an accounting of the historic Individual accounts. In September of 2002, BIA Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb was found in contempt of court for failure to begin that historic accounting. Since the BIA has no idea how many active IIM accounts it is handling, it is a sure bet they have no idea how many historic IIM accounts there are. But as a family we have been able to do what the BIA says it cannot, research our family's IIM account records.

Our family story begins in 1947 when my great-grandfather Moses Bruno went into the local Shawnee Indian Agency to get a purchase order drawn on his Individual Indian Money account to buy groceries. The Indian Agent told my grandfather, "Mr. Bruno, you are broke, you need to apply for old age assistance."

He should have had money in his IIM account; at one time there were eight oil wells pumping high-quality crude from beneath his 80-acre allotment. There were three wells still pumping in 1947, but not a dime of those royalties was being deposited into his IIM account. My grandfather, Johnnie Bruno, started a search for the records but he was stonewalled by the Indian Agent in Shawnee.

Through the years, my grandfather, my mother and others in our family searched in the National Archives in Washington D.C., various historical societies here in Oklahoma, and went into the BIA offices in Shawnee and Anadarko. Always, we were told there were no records. Finally, in 1994, the Anadarko Indian Agency deposited hundreds of thousands of pages of material into the National Archives and Records Administration archive in Fort Worth, Texas.

In 1998, my cousin Dana Dickson was surfing the various websites of the National Archives when she ran across an index of IIM account records from the Shawnee Indian Agency being held in the facility in Fort Worth. Within two weeks, several members of our family went to Fort Worth. This is what we found.

Beginning in the early part of the allotment period, IIM accounts were set up to handle the money coming in for grazing and farming leases, oil and gas leases, and royalty payments. In the case of our great-grandfather, Moses Bruno, he was a restricted Indian, which meant he could not sell his land, handle his own money or negotiate those leases or royalty payments on his own. Everything was done by the BIA agents at the Shawnee Indian Agency.

The Shawnee Indian Agency handled the IIM accounts for Indians from five tribes, Absentee Shawnee, Citizen Potawatomi, Iowa, Kickapoo, and Sac and Fox. Moses Bruno, my great-grandfather, was Potawatomi, but I also have a number of relatives who had IIM accounts who were Sac and Fox, Shawnee, and Kickapoo. There are at least 1,500 historic IIM account records from the Shawnee Indian Agency down in Fort Worth, and the stories they tell will make you angry.

For instance, we found the IIM account records for Mary Rhodd Bruno, Moses' mother, also a restricted Indian. On her ledger sheet we found that the BIA agents had posted two $2,000 mineral royalty payments as debits to her account. In other words, instead of depositing the two royalty checks for $2,000 each as payments to Mary Bruno's account, the BIA agents twice took $2,000 out of her account for a total loss of $8,000. Within two years, Mary Bruno had to sell her land just to survive. She sold the last parcel of 80 acres of her allotment for $1,100, a fraction of what the assessed value of the minerals alone would have been worth.

As for Moses Bruno, the assessed value of the mineral royalties on his land was $400 an acre. Twenty acres of his land were sold without his permission, without first taking them out of trust, to two oil and gas producers in Shawnee for $1,400. We could find no document with his signature approving the sale or agreeing to sell for pennies on the dollar his mineral resources. In fact, until the end of his life, he never knew that the BIA had sold that 20 acres out from under him. The oil well drilled on that 20 acres still pumps to this day and has produced over one million barrels of oil since it was first drilled in 1933. Moses Bruno never received a cent from the royalties on that well.

Through the years we heard many stories about how Moses Bruno was cheated, and most people dismissed them as simply "stories." But in researching his IIM account records we found the proof that these were not just stories, but facts.

The horse that

couldn't read

After some oil royalties started to come into Moses Bruno's IIM account, he went out and bought two horses, colts, a matched pair of paint horses. My great-grandfather was proud of those horses and kept them in the pasture just south of the house.

Mid-Continent Petroleum drilled a number of wells on Moses Bruno's place and according to the regulations they had to fence off the sludge and mud pits they dug on the land in the course of drilling those wells. But they didn't.

The pits were left open in the pasture and on windy days fine dust would blow over the mud and sludge pits, and to the unwary, they looked like they were solid earth. One day, one of those paint colts got into one of the mud pits. It was impossible to get him out; the more he struggled the deeper he sank. My grandfather had to shoot the horse so they could haul his carcass out of the mud pit.

Within a short time, my grandfather went to the BIA agent in Shawnee and demanded compensation for the horse. Remember, individual Indians had no say in who leased the land, how much money was to be paid and never saw the royalty checks that came into the Agency. The case dragged on for two years. There were over 15 different letters in Moses Bruno's IIM account records about this incident with the horse.

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What was the final conclusion? Even though the oil company violated the rules for not building fences around the mud and sludge pits, they did have it posted with "No Trespassing" signs. The horse, it turns out, was trespassing on the sludge pit in the pasture when he got mired down in the muck. No compensation was due Moses Bruno because the horse should have known from the "No Trespassing" signs not to wander out into the sludge pits.

The 10 percent skimming

One of the least known facts about the IIM account scandal, which we found in our research at Fort Worth, was that the local BIA agents were skimming 10 percent of every oil and gas lease or royalty payment due the IIM account holders. Agents were putting that money into a "Superintendent's Fund," an account over which only the Indian Agent had control.

In our research we found that back in 1913, the BIA in Washington state complained to the central office in Washington, D.C., that the auctioning of timber leases was costing the BIA an enormous amount of money. The Indian Agents in the Washington state area asked for and received permission to take 10 percent of the deposit money from the lease and sale of timber rights. But it wasn't long before the practice was instituted nation-wide and 10 percent of every check was taken for handling the IIM accounts.

When oil was discovered in large amounts on the allotted lands of the Shawnee, Potawatomi and Sac and Fox, the Indian Agency in Shawnee took 10 percent of every check that was supposed to be deposited into the IIM accounts of these Indian people. In some years, over one million dollars in lease and royalty payments were funneled through the IIM accounts under the Shawnee Indian Agency's control. Over $100,000 were skimmed by taking money that was supposed to paid to the Indian people.

To put this into perspective, in 1934, over $850,000 dollars went through the Shawnee Indian agency in the form of IIM account monies. The total budget for the Shawnee Indian Agency in that year was less than $70,000. But they deposited into the Superintendent's Fund almost $90,000 dollars.

The skimming of 10 percent of every check due IIM account holders went on at the Shawnee Indian Agency from about 1923 through at least the 1970's. Imagine for a moment a bank that is going to take 10 percent of every deposit you make into your account. How long would you allow them to handle your money? But the Indian people had no choice.

Five dollars worth

of peaches

One of the more disturbing aspects of what we found in our search through the Shawnee Indian Agency IIM account records was the pollution and destruction of the land by the oil companies when they drilled oil and gas wells on Indian lands. There were strict regulations in effect which governed how oil and gas drillers could operate on Indian land. But it was up to the Indian Agents to see that these rules were followed.

In the case of Moses Bruno, the local Indian Agents did virtually nothing to prevent the destruction of his lands with the byproducts of oil drilling and production.

All oil wells produce salt water in addition to oil and gas. Usually the salt water is put into tanks and then hauled away by tanker trucks to disposal wells drilled for that purpose. Not so in my great-grandfather's case. Millions of barrels of salt water were pumped down Bruno Creek, and onto Moses Bruno's land. For years he and my grandfather tried to get the practice stopped. The response of the Indian Agent in Shawnee, A.C. Hector, was to try to get Moses Bruno to sign a 10-year easement to allow salt water and bottom sludge from the oil tanks on his property to be pumped down the creek.

Mid-Continent Petroleum wanted my great-grandfather to allow a 10-year easement to pump salt water down the creek and a release from liability for pumping salt water onto his land for the grand total of $100. Moses Bruno refused to sign.

On August 8, 1943, Moses Bruno went into Shawnee to get a purchase order to buy five dollars worth of peaches from a fruit stand. For over two years, Indian Agent Hector had tried to get him to sign off on the easement. In Moses Bruno's IIM account material we found a signed release dated the same day as the purchase order for the peaches. The granting of the easement was the same size and on the same kind of paper used for purchase orders. Moses Bruno had signed away the rights to stop pollution on his land, to stop Mid-Continent Petroleum from pumping salt water and bottom sludge down Bruno Creek, for $100.

My great-grandfather, Moses Bruno, could barely read and write. As a family we knew that he had been cheated out of oil royalties, his land, and ultimately his dignity. In the course of doing research into this IIM account, we found out that over two million barrels of oil were pumped from beneath his 80 acres of allotted land. Over a period of forty years, while those iron grasshoppers pumped his land dry, he received less than $30,000, for two million barrels of oil.

Even today, two oil wells pump Moses Bruno's land but it is no longer in Bruno family hands. The last 40 acres of Moses Bruno's allotment were sold in 1961 after he died to settle a $95 grocery bill. For years we searched to find the records and what we finally found was not so much entries in a ledger sheet. We found validation that the stories we heard as children were true.

Ultimately, the IIM account lawsuit wending its way through the federal courts is not about money. It is about how individual Indian people were cheated, swindled, lied to, and lost not just their land, but also their dignity as Indian people. No amount of money can compensate for the humiliation my ancestors endured at the hands of the Indian Agents in Shawnee.

Johnnie P. Flynn, Ph.D., is a great grandson of Moses Bruno.