I am happy to be back in beautiful Navajo country today to update you on
the status of our lawsuit over the government's mishandling of your trust
accounts. The case is once again at a crucial stage and I want you to be
aware of the latest developments in Washington.
Frankly, I must tell you that I fear is that our lawsuit is becoming
something that the Navajo know all too well. It seems like our lawsuit has
become yet another long walk that the federal government - the Interior
Department, the Justice Department and the White House - is demanding
Indian people take.
Just as your people were tested in the 1860s by the famous long walk that
decimated the Navajo, the government is bringing its enormous legal
resources in an attempt to destroy our rights and our ability to enforce
those rights through this lawsuit. As the government has done so often in
controversies with Native people, it wants to divide us and make us so
tired of fighting in court that we will be forced to settle for far less
than we deserve - pennies on the dollar.
The government has thought that it could simply outnumber us with scores of
lawyers, baseless motions and bad-faith appeals, all paid with an endless
supply of our tax dollars. The government has spent more than $100 million
in defending their failure to honor the obligations it owes to you and
other Native people. It has attempted to undermine our will to fight this
terrible injustice by dividing and splitting Indian people whose money and
land is at stake. Fortunately, for the eight years of this difficult
litigation, the government has failed.
As the Navajo and other Indian nations have shown, when Indian people are
united they can do great things. We must not allow the government to divide
us, especially now when we have won all the court battles on the merits.
Justice is on our side, and we will prevail if we remain united and do not
allow the government to intimidate us or compel us into settlements and
compromises that undermine everything that we have fought so hard to
What we have sought from the outset is a full and complete accounting of
what the federal government did with our monies and our lands from the
inception of the Individual Indian Trust in 1887. This is the basic,
absolute legal right every trust beneficiary has in America - whether
Indian or non-Indian. All trustees, including the government, the smallest
trust company in Arizona, and the largest trust company on Wall Street, are
governed by the same standard. The Secretary of the Interior, who is
responsible for the management of the Indian trust, is not free to continue
to behave badly and otherwise act against your interests as a trust
beneficiary. We have asked for a full accounting of our trust funds and
trust lands. That right has been confirmed by federal courts. We have asked
that the government fix its broken trust management system - something
every trust beneficiary has a right to expect.
We know from numerous studies dating back to the inception of the trust
that the government did not handle our trust monies and our trust lands
properly. The government has admitted this in court. Not once, but
repeatedly. And the courts have agreed with us.
Court orders come from both U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who for
eight years has presided over our lawsuit, and the U.S. Court of Appeals
for the District of Columbia. Those decisions state clearly and firmly that
we have a right to a full and complete accounting of our monies.
Do not be fooled by some of the government's claims that a court decision
that protects the Secretary from any punishment for lying to a federal
judge in our case or that the courts have erased in any way the
government's obligation to conduct a complete accounting and to fix the
broken trust management system. Those victories remain intact and cannot be
Having won those victories, we should not settle for less that we are
entitled to. That would make us second-class citizens and would deny us
constitutional right that every other American has.
As the lead plaintiff in the Cobell vs. Norton lawsuit, I want to renew the
pledge I made when I filed the lawsuit in 1996. We said then and we say
again today we will not accept a settlement that is unfair and unjust to
We are continuing our difficult fight in court until final judgment or
until a fair settlement is reached. However, no one knows how long this
will take. Yet, we must not ever surrender or the government's abuse of us,
our families, our neighbors, and our friends will never end.
Recently, I'm sure you heard that Congress announced a "breakthrough"
agreement that could settle our lawsuit out of court. No one wishes more
than I do that a breakthrough has been reached.
My friends, it is not a breakthrough. Not yet. What we have agreed with the
government to do is to attempt to find someone who is able to help the
parties resolve the legal issues without the need for further litigation.
We have begun talking with the government about who could do this. This is
the beginning of a long process that would proceed at the same time
Why did we do this? Our many friends in Congress have urged us to take this
step. They said that they prefer mediation as one way to resolve the
issues. While it is clear to us that Secretary Gale Norton and Attorney
General John Ashcroft will not settle the case without pressure, perhaps
congressional involvement will provide the necessary element to achieve a
fair settlement of the case. It is worth a try, particularly since Congress
might try to impose a legislative settlement without the agreement of the
beneficiaries, that could undermine our rights and court victories if we do
not at least try and settle this case through mediation. That's why we have
begun these talks.
I must tell you that we always have been misled by the government in our
five previous efforts to settle this case out of court. After more than
three months of talks in Washington, I am not optimistic as the government
has done little but delay everything.
The current administration is determined to appeal every decision of the
District Court, even when it knows that its conduct harms you and other
Native people. The bottom line is that so far it has proven that it is
determined to deny us our fundamental rights.
A MEDIATOR OF STATURE AND INTEGRITY
We have said repeatedly that a key to successful mediation is to have the
issues placed before an individual of high stature, a person of
unquestionable integrity. In short, we want people of stature and integrity
- like a Jimmy Carter and a Robert Dole - who have the stature and respect
to convince the White House, the Interior Department, the Department of the
Treasury that it is in this country's interest to resolve this case fairly
Without a mediator of such stature and integrity, I fear that mediation
will be yet another long diversion for Indian people, another long walk
down a path that has no end.
Let me tell you about the recent cutoff of the Internet. Judge Lamberth
ordered it because the Interior Department refused to protect our trust
records and trust funds from computer hackers. For years, the Court and the
government have known that our trust records have been destroyed and
corrupted by hackers, making it impossible to do an accurate accounting of
our trust funds and putting our trust assets at great jeopardy of loss.
We need security for our trust records and our trust funds - not a system
like the one that exits where any high school kid with access to the
Internet could hack into the system and destroy our trust records and steal
our trust funds - without any trail. Unfortunately, an appeals court ended
the Internet disconnection before adequate safeguards were put in place.
But, we will continue to address this vital issue in the courts.
Don't think for a moment that means our lawyers are not determined to win
this case. We are absolutely right on the law and the facts. We believe
that the only way to end this nightmare is to place the Individual Indian
Trust in the hands of a receiver under the supervision of Judge Lamberth.
The judge has said he has the authority to do this if the Interior
Secretary will not act like a fit trustee. Receivership would not harm you;
it would not affect your regular checks or reduce the amount of funds in
your account. It would just mean that someone under the direct supervision
of Judge Lamberth would oversee the trust reform, management and
administration while reform was taking place.
After eight years of litigation, I think most people in Indian country have
come to realize that Judge Lamberth cares much more about our interests
than the Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Based on the court record, we have said repeatedly Gale Norton does not
deserve to be allowed to continue to control our money. Our court file is
thick with details of the government's lying, misleading and deceiving the
judge about what has happened to trust records and trust funds. Critical
documents have been lost or destroyed intentionally; yet no one has been
punished personally for this illegal conduct.
It's no wonder that two Interior secretaries have been held in contempt by
the courts. Interior Secretary Norton got an appeals court panel to remove
her contempt conviction, but the evidence of her continuing abuse is clear
and established. It seems that the court of appeals is willing to protect
Gale Norton, even when the law demands that she be punished for lying to a
My friends, we will not allow our trust assets to be handled with such a
callous attitude and flagrant disregard for the rights of Indian people as
Secretary Norton has displayed. We will continue the fight to see that
Secretary Norton and other Interior officials are punished for their
continuing abuses even after they leave office, if necessary. The appeals
court recently suggested that criminal contempt may be appropriate. We
You can help us continue this fight. Urge your members of Congress to tell
the Bush administration to negotiate in good faith with us, to accept a
mediator with sufficient stature and integrity who can bring this matter to
a fair and just resolution. Tell them not to continue to harm us by
attempting to break up the class by peeling off small groups of Indians for
settlements of pennies on the dollar.
There is another important point. Do not fall for the argument that some
are making, that any settlement will force the government to curtail
spending on existing Indian programs. Judge Lamberth has made it pointedly
clear that the government must not do that. Most members of Congress from
Indian country also agree that Indian people should not be punished because
they want only what is theirs - their trust money!
The government has a special fund that can fund any final settlement of our
lawsuit. It is the "judgment fund." It was created to fund the payment of
money that a court has decided the government owes, including trust funds.
Therefore, no money must be taken from Indian programs to settle our case.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona has said many times that if this were any other
group other than American Indians, the national government would have
resolved this issue years ago. That's why we must be united, why we must
stand together to have this issue resolved for the good of all Indian
people and the good of America.
Thank you for your continued support. Remember, we are doing this for our
ancestors, our children, our grandchildren and us.
It is our money, after all. The government has stolen it long enough.