Profiles in trust: Part One

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WASHINGTON - Testimony July 30 left no doubt that if a class action lawsuit had not been filed, the reform of trust funds management would never have been attempted.

The July 30 hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was designed to build the record for congressional intervention in Cobell, intervention that might come as early as the fall session of the current 108th Congress. Even at this record-building session, with the plaintiff class and its attorneys receiving some heavy criticism, implied and otherwise, it also became a matter of record that this same handful of people provided the turning point in the case upon their filing of expert evidence with the court in February.

So when the trust funds litigation in Cobell and other cases are finally resolved, people like lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, her fellow plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, a cast of Native American Rights Fund attorneys and other members of the legal team, as well as an honor roll of others will no doubt all wear every feather Native culture can bestow.

But for still other laborers in a field that grows larger with every tribal demand for a just accounting of their trust funds (the Santee of Nebraska and Yankton Sioux are the latest), credit for their efforts has been harder to come by.

Congressional intervention would emphasize the mediation of adversarial differences that have dominated the case so far. By its very nature, and no doubt because of its historic importance, the hearing drew out a distilled record of essential information in the case as the ground beneath it begins to shift. This shift and the information it throws out, the new perspective it generates, leaves some reputations on higher public ground in this regard, and some not.

This multi-part series will take a look at a few who have found higher ground, followed by a look at one whose reputation as a former Interior Secretary may be settling into lower ground, at least on the subject of the trust funds: Bruce Babbitt.

Earl Old Person: a delayed place in the sun

The former chief and member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council actually appeared in Washington to testify at another hearing. But if his presence wasn't to be found on the trust funds witness panels, his influence over the present trust funds proceedings had already made itself felt.

Old Person remains in the class of Individual Indian Monies account holders who are suing Interior. But at one time he was a lead plaintiff, and his removal from that post holds the story of a tribal elder standing on principal to prevail in the end.

By published accounts at the time, Cobell attorneys initiated Old Person's removal from among the lead plaintiffs because of his difficulties in traveling to fulfill Washington-based functions from the Blackfeet homelands in Montana. In a little-noticed Gannett News Service report on March 7, however, Old Person protested in his own voice and through a personal attorney that he wished to remain a lead plaintiff, but was being removed because he disagreed with certain tactics of the Cobell legal team.

First among these was the same one cited by five chairmen who signed a much-discussed Indian Country Today letter lambasting the process of the Cobell case: the legal team's request for a federal court to put the IIM accounts into receivership, removing them from Interior control.

Funding issues also arose for tribes when Interior submitted a budget whose substantial increase went not into service delivery, but into the trust funds fix that Interior had already botched repeatedly. From there Congress stepped in to demand settlement of the case. Following the July 30 hearing, a mediated congressional settlement in Cobell seems more likely than ever.

Old Person's lone protest turns out to have been the start of something.

(Continued in Part 2)