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Restoring trust and ending a national disgrace

When the federal government faces a problem in Indian country, its usual
tactic is to try to divide and conquer the Indians. That does not seem to
be working these days.

On June 20, I went to Washington to announce a set of principles that could
settle the class action lawsuit I filed nine years ago over the
government's well-documented mishandling of thousands of Individual Indian
Money accounts. As our news conference dramatically illustrated, the
leaders of the nation's largest Indian organizations were united. All
joined me in supporting congressional action that could resolve our
lawsuit.

Too many Indians have died since the lawsuit was filed in 1996, and too
many will die before the courts can resolve all the issues in the case.
These are among the poorest people in America, and they need help now.
That's why I agreed to this proposal.

It is a good, common-sense bargain for the government and Indian people. It
responds to repeated calls by Congress to settle this case promptly. It
gives Congress a bold opportunity to reach out to the nation's first
citizens and end a national disgrace that dates to 1887.

That's when Congress decided that Indians were not smart enough to handle
their own money and directed that the federal government manage all their
lands. We know now all too well that the federal government, which had
total control of our lands and money, was not a good manager, either.

Billions of dollars that were supposed to have been placed in the trust
accounts of individual Indians never got there. They were stolen,
embezzled, misappropriated and diverted from helping the very people whose
lands the government was leasing to oil, gas, timber and agricultural
interests.

Our nine-year court fight has documented those wrongs. But the great
tragedy of this issue has been that the government has known for decades
that the accounts were not being handled properly. Study after study has
confirmed that the Indians were short-changed and that the government
simply kept the excess in Washington.

Now, 118 years later, we finally have a practical way to put back the word
"trust" in the Indian trust account system. Equally important, we have an
honorable way to remove the stain from the government's dealings with
thousands of Indians who were denied access to the money that they should
have had decades ago.

As the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, we have won a series of wonderful
victories. The federal courts have confirmed our worst fears: that the
government did indeed take advantage of some of the nation's first
citizens.

Congress showed leadership and asked Indian leaders for a blueprint to
resolve this question. We have given it 50 principles that could guide the
writing of a lasting trust-reform program. I hope that our lawmakers
realize that Indian country, with more than 500 federally recognized
tribes, has never been more united on an issue.

We now call on Congress to listen to the united voice of Indians across the
nation and give them justice. We are not seeking a handout, welfare or
reparations. The Indian trust and this case are about land, resources and
money stolen from the forefathers of more than 500,000 Indian
beneficiaries.

As the courts have said repeatedly, this is our money.

Elouise Cobell, a banker and a member of Montana's Blackfeet Nation, is the
lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit involving individual Indian Money
accounts held in trust by the Interior Department.