Williams: Indian trust cases offer hope for seven generations

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The resolution of the Cobell v. Salazar case is far from complete. In August 2008 the federal district court awarded $455.6 million in restitution to the class of American Indians who had Individual Indian Money accounts held in trust and administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, based on a breach of the U.S. government’s trust responsibility to individual Indian trust beneficiaries. The plaintiff is appealing the federal district court’s ruling on the basis of fatal errors of law. A ruling from the federal court of appeals is expected this year.

At the time of the Cobell appeal involving IIM trust accounts, an additional 100 tribal trust account cases were pending in cases spanning the Court of Federal Claims, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and District Courts in Oklahoma.

The amount the courts will award the plaintiffs is conjecture at this point, but money will be awarded. In the Cobell case, funds initially awarded and still at issue are based on the legal principle of restitution in contract law, which attempts to restore a rightful owner to his or her previous state by compensating him or her for loss, damage, or injury.

In addition to the living rightful owners and their descendants, many American Indians passed on before the courts could make a decision without descendants. Because of the BIAs’ mismanagement in accounting, we will never know the full number of people that passed away without descendants, so I estimated a number of 10 percent for these purposes.

When the time comes that Indian country receives payment, what will we do with these awards? I have been talking with many leaders in Indian country about pooling 10 percent of these funds that would have gone to Indians who died without descendants as an opportunity to return to our traditional teachings.

Red Cloud, an Oglala Lakota leader who led his people against the U.S. Army, and later as his people transitioned from life on the plains to the reservation, stressed that when Indian people made a decision, it should be done with the welfare of the next seven generations in mind.

I believe that had our people who died without heirs had a voice in this decision, they would have asked us to honor Red Cloud’s vision and set aside some funds for education. Nowhere in Indian country is there a better opportunity for returning to the vision of our ancestors to impact seven generations than with a portion of the awards from the federal courts for these mishandled trust monies.

We can make the dream of a prosperous future for their descendants a reality. As the president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund and a descendant of Red Cloud, I see how education transforms people’s lives, helping them to recapture their language, traditions and teachings, while also bringing them professional opportunities to better their lives and communities. Education is changing Indian country, one person at a time, but the progress has been slow because resources are limited. Imagine the impact an education trust would have if every American Indian had the resources to obtain an education.

With an education trust, American Indians can leave behind the legacy of impoverishment forced upon our people by the federal government. The government took our people’s lands. These trust funds will always be a poor substitute for what we held and hold sacred, but perhaps we can attempt to pay this restitution forward to our children and grandchildren with something that no government or person can ever take from them – an education.

While the courts deliberate, the time for action in Indian country is now to make the decisions for the next seven generations of our people, and to establish the mechanisms for carrying those decisions forward for our people. Let us make our ancestors proud.

Richard B. Williams is the president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, the nation’s largest provider of private scholarships for American Indian students seeking to better their lives and communities through a college education at the nation’s 33 accredited tribal colleges and universities.