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Provide Justice to Indian Trust Account Holders

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The United States government made a commitment, through solemn treaty obligations, when it divided Indian lands in 1887, to hold those lands in trust, to manage them wisely and to give any income from the sale or lease of the land to its Indian owners. Our government has never fulfilled that promise.

The Indian trust has been so badly mismanaged, for so long, by administrations of both political parties, that no one today has any idea how much money should even be in the trust - let alone, how much is owed to individual account holders, and for what. That's not just wrong, it's negligent.

Ten years ago, Congress ordered the Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs to conduct a full and accurate accounting of the Indian trust funds so that we know how much money is owed to each trust account holder and we can provide accurate and timely payments to them. The Department ignored that directive.

Seven years ago, in the face of growing frustration at the unwillingness of government leaders to come to grips with this problem, Elouise Cobell, of the Blackfeet Indian Nation, filed a federal lawsuit to compel the Department to follow Congress's directive. The Department has fought that lawsuit every step of the way.

Last September, the judge in the Cobell case ordered the Interior Department to make a full and accurate historical accounting of all individual Indian trust accounts. Weeks later - behind closed doors - House Republican leaders, working with the Bush Administration, used legislative sleight-of-hand to derail the judge's order for a year.

For years, Congress has left it to the Executive branch to resolve the Indian trust dispute, yet the problems are no closer to being solved now than they were a decade ago. It is time for Congress to step up and accept its share of the responsibility for finding a timely and fair solution to the trust management problem.

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I see three options. Congress, the Interior Department and the tribes, can work together, as equal partners, to fashion a consensus solution. We can seek a mediated solution to the problem. Or we can allow the issue to be settled in court.

In testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on March 10, I offered specific suggestions for moving the trust management issue forward. These suggestions reflect discussions I have had with tribal chairs and tribal members in South Dakota, and with other leaders whose judgment I respect.

First, Congressional meddling in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit must end. Interventions such as the legislative rider blocking the judge's order to start the accounting process do not simply delay justice for Indian trust account holders, they undermine the delicate balance of powers that is at the heart of our system of government.

Second, as soon as possible, Congress, the White House and tribal leaders should jointly seek a consensus solution to the trust dispute. This problem cannot be solved by bureaucrats in Washington alone. The search for a settlement must include meaningful consultation with tribal leaders. After all, we are talking about Indian people's money, not the government's money.

Third, all parties should seriously explore the possibility of a mediated settlement. The mediation process should be headed by leaders of great stature, who are experienced in difficult negotiations and whose integrity is unquestioned.

Finally, Congress should begin budgeting now for the eventual resolution of the trust management dispute. Last year, I introduced legislation to create a fund to begin making payments to trust holders who have received an objective accounting of their trust assets. Congress should begin now to look seriously at that proposal and perhaps others. Many of the people who are owed money are elders. They cannot wait years to learn their account balances, and years more to receive their money. There should be a mechanism in place to issue regular payments to account holders in case negotiation or mediation fails to produce a consensus solution.

We have given the Executive branch more than a reasonable amount of time to show progress. The time has come to insist on a just and timely solution to the trust management problem.