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The check is in the mail

LAWRENCE, Kan. ? The old saying 'The check is in the mail' has a new twist for Indian trust account holder Millie Tapedo.

An Apache grandmother and employee at Haskell Indian Nations University, Tapedo has been knocking on doors for years trying to find out exactly why money owed to her and other Individual Indian Monies (IIM) account holders doesn't come in a timely manner.

But her questions, and those of 43,000 other account holders, have become more urgent since the Internet debacle at Interior suspended delivery of their monthly checks just before Christmas. The Internet shutdown was ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth in the Cobell lawsuit. Hopes that payments could quickly resume were quickly dashed, and as of press time they are still in limbo.

Instead of answers, Tapedo says she has been given the run around. "When I have been calling, they said that the order that the judge put out, that Lamberth, that order closed down all the accounts all over the Indian nations, everywhere," Tapedo said. "So they're not sending out anything to anybody at all."

Tapedo inherited her IIM account from her father, who signed the original contract for the gas and oil leases in 1932. She remembers going with her father to pick up the payments from the local agency office when she was a young girl.

"It started in 1932, the oil royalties," she remembered. "It was good because there was good money coming in. But over the years since my dad passed away, I became the heir to it. Since then I began to look into it, the contract that my dad signed, probably the same one that all of them signed around there, and there is no way that if a new owner comes in that you can do anything. You just inherit what he signed and that's it. The contract was a binding agreement that you can't change."

Although the contracts may have seemed like a good thing in the 1930s, Tapedo is concerned that the Indian people who signed them weren't the ones who negotiated the documents.

"Our people really didn't understand a lot of things, and our people were not that educated to really understand what they were signing," she said. "They did have oral interpreters, but at that time a dollar was a whole lot, it was a lot of money.

"As the years went on, about 25 years ago when I inherited that money, I did research on it. We were getting really good money on it, about $1,000 a month, but as the years went on it kept going down, kept going down, the money just kept going down. I never really paid attention; I just had gone on what the area office had told me. Then my cousin and I started keeping track of it because it was our only resource of money. It kept us going on a monthly basis back then."

About 10 years ago, Tapedo and her cousin started paying visits to the Anadarko BIA office, questioning their statements and the decline in the amount of money they were being paid. "We started going over there, we started asking questions," Tapedo recalled. "We called Albuquerque, or wherever we had to. We wanted to find out if the money had been paid in by the oil companies. Well, as we started finding out things, we started finding out that Anadarko was getting our money from what we understood."

Tapedo and her cousin went to the Anadarko Area Office after finding out that the BIA had indeed received the money owed to them. "We asked about our money and they said it hadn't come in," she said. "We asked to see the man in charge and we asked him if it had come in. He said no.

"Then we asked him if we could come into his office and talk to him, we told him we really needed our money. We went into his office and as we were standing there I looked down on his desk and there were our checks. We asked him why it was there and he said 'Well, it hasn't been put on your account.' Then we asked him why he had told us he didn't know anything about it. We were given the run around anywhere we went about it."

For about the last eight years, Tapedo's calls to the Anadarko office have brought little more than "We don't know anything, your money hasn't gotten here yet."

Yet despite her past experience in dealing with the government, Tapedo doesn't see the current plans for trust reform as an answer to the problem. "This has been going on for a long, long time, even before my cousin and I started asking questions," Tapedo said. "It looks like it could be a good thing, but I don't think we will benefit from this for a long time.

"They have no records that really say what everybody is supposed to get. It seems like our Indian leaders would come together and just really push this issue about what is happening. It is affecting our Indian people all over, resource money. It is affecting us, as I read about it, my hopes were kind of high, but you aren't ever going to get them to come up with the papers that were destroyed.

"Our people depend on this money. If they don't get it they have to go to the welfare office."

"What they need to do, if they really want to do something and see an end to it, then every tribe needs to have someone there to have input. Those people could call back to their tribes and let them know what is really going on. We can't recoup the records; they have been destroyed so we need tribal people who know about finance and budgeting."

After years of dealing with her IIM account, Tapedo sees little coming from the current consultation meetings between the tribes and the Department of the Interior.

"You could tell them what is happening, but they don't have a solution for it," she commented. "It doesn't do any good to have these kinds of meetings. I think our hands are tied all over Indian country. Tribes are interested in trying to do something right now, but like I said, they are going to have to have a representative from each tribe and not have these consultations. I heard Norton and them aren't telling everything. They need to quit that. They need to be where Ms. Norton is at and where McCaleb is at and really get down to business. As it goes our people are depending on that money."

"This is like the Third World," Tapedo concluded. "It is so sad that our people have to want, this is money that is owed to them. You have heard about how we have been mistreated through all the years and it is true, but let's stop it. We are in poverty. Does America care? We got people living on the reservations in really poor conditions. Does America care? We are the first people. I'm not saying we are owed anything, but we are owed respect. We have owned a lot of resources that have helped America."