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Trustee ‘taking care of’ Indians

Indian trust is well-managed by U.S.” That statement is: a) The punch line of a shaggy BIA joke;

b) The first line of the Interior Department’s request to Congress for money to take care of Indians;

c) The losing proposition in any tribal debate in any week of any year; or

d) The title of an opinion piece written by Interior Special Trustee Ross Swimmer for the July 28 Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The correct answer is the last option, although none of the other choices would be wrong.

Swimmer is still on the job, taking care of Indians, most notably of late as the mastermind behind the strategy of fighting legal efforts to force a federal accounting of missing billions of Indian trust monies.

He is best remembered for his stint as Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the 1980s. Indian leaders and Congress stopped his plans to hand over Indian education to the states and Indian trust monies to private banks, but he succeeded at slashing the Indian programs and worsening the lives of Indian people.

In his prosy “Indian trust well-managed by U.S.,” he touts a toll-free trust funds question line, modern storage, account reconciliations, statements and audits.

Among their accomplishments, says Swimmer, is that the staff “is focusing on reducing backlogs of probate and land appraisals.” I don’t know if our family’s case is typical, but my mother died in 2003 and work on her probate did not begin for more than three years and is not concluded.

Swimmer cites only one “serious problem” in Indian country: “Trust land ‘fractionation’ that, because of early probate codes results in small parcels of trust land that are owned by hundreds or even thousands of people, and minuscule trust payments to individual account holders.”

As a multi-millionaire with large land-holdings, he may be out of touch with the majority of Indian people, who live in poverty and who cling to even the smallest bit of land.

Swimmer is advocating that Congress take away such “minuscule” amounts of land and give them to the tribes. It’s a “solution” he’s pushed in the past, which resulted in the Supreme Court ruling an earlier act as an unconstitutional taking of private property.

He can’t resist taking a shot at Elouise Cobell and the other Native people whose court case has forced those minimal improvements: “I realize the Cobell litigation is what dominates the news, but I think it is more important to the Indian trust beneficiary to know that Interior takes its job of trustee delegate very seriously.”

Ah, yes. It is much more important for Indian people to perceive that the trustee delegate is on the job than for the trustee to actually live up to the trust.

The white men on the Supreme Court who invented the federal Indian trust doctrine in the 1830s seemed to believe in a benevolent national government that would protect Indian peoples from the states’ citizenry.

The high court made up new law, saying the Indian tribes’ “relationship to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian.”

“They look to our government for protection; rely on its kindness and its power; appeal to it for relief of its wants; and address the president as their great father.”

It is accurate that Indian leaders called President George Washington what the Americans called him, father of the country, and gave a similar form of address to him and to subsequent presidents. It is also accurate that, in addition to calling Washington “Great White Father,” Iroquois leaders called him and later presidents “Destroyer of Towns.”

Washington explained the first U.S. Indian law – the first of the trade and intercourse acts – to the Seneca Nation, promising that the 1790 law was the general government’s protection of Indian land fraud by the states or citizens.

The justices’ instant concern in the 1830s was over the avaricious citizens of Georgia who were stealing and swarming over Cherokee lands in order to dig for gold. State officials quickly legalized and encouraged the miners�� tactics and purported to strip Cherokee Nation of their land titles.

Cherokee leaders didn’t bother asking the executive branch for help because Andrew Jackson was president. Jackson had won the presidency – and offices representing Tennessee before that – in large part because of his reputation as a ruthless Indian-fighter.

While in Congress, he and his former battlefield cohorts took over control of the Indian affairs committees of the Senate and House, in effect mounting a successful military coup over the conduct of congressional Indian policy.

Together they crafted the Indian Removal Act, which he signed into law the year after becoming president. In his first State of the Union speech, Jackson asked Congress to pass the removal legislation to promote states’ rights and “preserve this much-injured race.”

Jackson said the “emigration” should be voluntary, “for it would be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their fathers and seek a home in a distant land. But they should be distinctly informed that if they remain within the limits of the States they must be subject to their laws [and] will ere long become merged in the mass of our population.”

But it was not voluntary. The removal treaties and marches of dozens of Indian tribes from their homelands were coerced and forced at bayonet point.

Telling Congress that this happened only to the Cherokees, Swimmer advocates for Trail of Tears theme parks as money-makers for Cherokee Nation. Even when he’s doing what he likely thinks is a good thing for his own people, it is at the expense of other Native nations.

As a trustee delegate, he’s less of what Washington and the Supreme Court envisioned and more of a Jacksonian trustee, cloaking actions against the intended trust beneficiaries in words that sound like good stewardship.

The week before Swimmer’s opinion piece appeared, the Interior Inspector General released a report, faulting BIA employees in the 2003 death of 16-year-old Cindy Gilbert Sohappy at the Chemawa Indian School.

The report found that education and security personnel failed “to maintain a safe environment at the detention facility” and that the “historical pattern of inaction and disregard for human health and safety” contributed to her death from acute alcohol poisoning.

Swimmer did not mention the report or the student in his opinion piece in the newspaper in her Pacific Northwest homeland. I guess it’s more important for people to think well of the trustee delegate than for the news to be dominated by Indian people who have been failed by the trust.

Cindy Gilbert Sohappy: taken care of by the trustee from cradle to grave.

<i>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.