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Trust matters - Money and Indian unity

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Washington politicos and pressies followed the Indian money into two D.C.
events during the week of June 20.

The first event was a press conference where a coalition of Indian leaders
unveiled principles for a proposed congressional settlement of the Indian
trust funds lawsuit that is forcing the federal government to account for
the billions of dollars of Indian monies it has controlled for over 150
years.

The Indian leaders are engaged in a serious, concerted effort that deserves
to succeed.

The second event was a hearing where leaders of the Senate Indian Affairs
Committee unmasked dummy corporations and other underhanded techniques used
by Washington lobbyists to separate their client tribes from $80 million.
Some of that money paid for trips and favorite causes of members of
Congress, most prominently House Speaker Tom DeLay, R-Texas, but the House
Ethics Committee is dealing with that.

Senate Indian Affairs Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Vice Chairman
Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., are laying the foundation for a likely Justice
Department case against the lobbyists and their cohorts, who deserve
everything that's coming to them.

The lobbyists won't be punished for one of their worst offenses because
it's not actionable. At the same time that they were luxuriating in tribal
millions, they were e-mailing each other and calling the tribal leaders
"monkeys" and "troglodytes." One can only wonder what they might have
called the tribal people outside the constraints of the written word.

Both the press conference and the hearing are about Indians being bilked
out of their money, but there's something else linking them.

Increasingly in recent times, national Indian efforts have been weakened or
thwarted by one, two or a dozen tribes striking out on their own for a
better deal; not for everyone, but for themselves only.

The backstory to this series of Senate hearings is that certain tribal
leaders paid top dollar to bottom feeders to do the dirty work of elevating
their tribes by keeping others down. While a few of these tribal leaders
are victims, others are just being portrayed as victims in order to get the
pit bulls off the streets.

By contrast, the trust funds lawsuit and the settlement principles are
united Indian efforts to gain some justice and some cash for Indian people
who own property and haven't seen all or any income from leases and sales
handled by the federal government.

Both Interior and Treasury officials have been held in contempt of the
federal district court's attempts to make the government accountable, and
the case has the federal departments on the ropes.

Over the course of nine years of litigation, some tribal leaders have
joined forces with federal bureaucrats and politicians to try to kill the
trust funds case by legislative fiat. They have lobbyists and lawyers on
their payroll who will soon start circling the Senate Indian Affairs
Committee and other congressional offices with the hope of undermining
legislation based on the proposed principles.

The 50 proposed principles were drafted by Indian leaders and lawyers in
meetings throughout Indian country. They were announced by a broad-based
coalition that includes the lead plaintiff in the trust funds case, Elouise
Cobell, who also is a Blackfeet banker; National Congress of American
Indians President Tex Hall, who also is chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and
Arikara nations; Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association Chairman Jim Gray, who
also is Chief of the Osage Nation; Sharon Clahchischilliage, who is
executive director of the Navajo Nation's Washington office; and John
Echohawk, Pawnee, who is director of the Native American Rights Fund.

There have been attempts to settle the trust funds case before. NARF
attorney and lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Keith Harper, Cherokee, told
me in an interview in 2001 that "Interior and the plaintiffs had an
agreement in principle on some very difficult negotiations that lasted for
the entire summer of 2000."

Former Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover, Pawnee,
described the outcome of that settlement effort to me in this way: "Justice
put the kibosh on it because they had made a calculation that they were
going to win the appeal."

It turned out that the Justice lawyers miscalculated and lost the appeal
they counted on winning. At that point, shots at the lawsuit intensified,
especially in the House of Representatives. Another effort to resolve the
case was derailed in 2002 when Interior and Justice broke off settlement
talks.

This latest effort was initiated by McCain, Dorgan, House Resources
Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif. and ranking member Nick Rahall,
D-W.Va. They asked for guiding principles for a fair legislative resolution
of the case.

The Trust Reform and Cobell Settlement Workgroup described their Principles
for Legislation as "the basis for resolving the nine-year court battle in
Cobell v. Norton concerning the federal government's failure to account for
trust funds held for American Indians and for reforming the federal
government's system for tribal and individual trust management."

The principles are grouped in four areas: accounting of individual Indian
trust accounts; reforming Indian individual and tribal trust systems;
Indian land consolidation; and individual Indian resources mismanagement
claims.

The principles proposed by the workgroup are elegant and comprehensive.
They're the best idea so far and there's not likely to be a better one.

The senators and representatives should close their doors to the tribal
leaders and their paid naysayers who don't like these principles but don't
have any of their own.

It's too late to do anything for the Indian people who died in poverty and
in debt when they should have lived a life of wealth or comfort.

It's almost too late for many poor Indians who should be rich Indians, or
who should at least have indoor plumbing.

Tribal leaders who are considering pouring money into Washington lobbyists'
pockets to fight legislation based on the proposed principles should
instead put it in the hands of their tribal people who need it and may not
live to see any settlement monies.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C. and a columnist for Indian
Country Today.