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The loud sound of silence

Sometimes what you don’t say speaks louder than what you do.

We have a good example of this as it relates to the Indian Trust responsibilities of the Department of Interior.

Recently the Department of Interior proudly published on its Web site a catalog of its self-perceived accomplishments during the years of the George W. Bush administration.

Every action for which they could take credit was listed with pictures from polar bears to national parks to oil shale to Indian education.

However, search as you may, you will not in that boast list find any reference to any accomplishment in dealing with their huge Indian Trust responsibility. In fact, scan if you will, the word “trust” will not even appear.

Congress, the Governmental Accountability Office, and even the interior itself has acknowledged the trust responsibilities of that department are one of its most important and largest responsibilities.

The silence of the Bush Interior Department must be replaced by a major high priority effort in the Obama administration to achieve success in dealing with the Indian Trusts.


The trust responsibilities are central and vital to the well-being of the entire Native American community, but the interior’s record of accomplishment, by its own admission, or omission, is totally silent on the subject. And that is deafening.

The Government Accountability Office has warned the Obama administration that trust reform remains one of the most serious problems facing the new interior secretary. The interior, the GAO said, “is still in the process of implementing key trust fund reforms, including preparation of a timetable for completing remaining activities. ...”

In other words, even the planning remains for trust reform remains incomplete after decades of studies and reports.

Sally Willet, an administrative law judge and Indian Land Working Group consultant, told the Missoulian’s Jodi Rave recently that trust reform remains the critical issue for Native Americans.

“The soul of Indian country is at stake,” she said. “And the soul of Indian country is the land base. Trust reform under the current administration has been elimination of programs, services and funding. Nothing has been improved for landowners except possibly getting the wrong balance faster.”

Unless the interior successfully addresses its trust duties, another generation of Indians will suffer. Interior and Congress have spent billions of dollars on trust-related activities including developing electronic computer systems and a multi-million dollar record center in Kansas, but when it comes to claiming success and achievement, there is no mention by the interior of performance of its trust responsibilities.

This silence – this failure – must be dealt with by the new administration.

It must become a major agenda item for the new Obama administration and Ken Salazar, the new secretary. The silence of the Bush Interior Department must be replaced by a major high priority effort in the Obama administration to achieve success in dealing with the Indian trusts and fulfilling Obama’s commitment to carrying out the United States’ obligation to the Indian people including its hundreds of thousands trust beneficiaries.

We shall be watching and listening.

– Eloise Cobell
Browning, Mont.

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Elouise Cobell is the lead plaintiff in Cobell v. Kempthorne, a class action lawsuit that has challenged the federal government’s mismanagement of Individual Indian Trust Accounts. The case was filed in 1996.