Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
From the Denver Post:
Who is 'stealing' now?
Denver Post columnist
Wednesday, January 08, 2003 -- There is a metaphysical question presented by the dispute between American Indians and the U.S. Interior Department: Is the United States stealing from American Indians or are the Indians attempting to steal from the United States?
The enduring stereotype is that the government always steals from the Indians. Every school child has been told how the Indians sold Manhattan for a handful of beads and how the government tricked Indian tribes, violated treaties and continues to break its promises.
So, given that history, shouldn't the lawyers for the Colorado-based Native American Rights Fund be believed when they claim the government owes the holders of Indian trust accounts $137 billion?
The answer is "no." The $137 billion figure assumes that the federal government won't be able to "prove" any of the many things the lawyers for the Indians have asked them to prove. The lawyers say they want a detailed accounting of each trust fund going back 116 years. The money in these sometimes-tiny accounts contain the proceeds of oil, gas, grazing and mineral leases. Some of them have been divided and divided again so that individual Indians receive payments that are a tiny fraction of what it costs the government to maintain the account.
The Interior Department has readily admitted for years that some records from the earliest periods are incomplete or missing, but the department argues that it is bound by a 1994 law that only requires it to do accounting on trust-fund accounts in place at that time. It currently estimates it will cost $335 million and take five years to complete that job.
Secretary of the Interior Interior Secretary Gale Norton has made the trust-fund issue a major priority and has taken a wide variety of actions intended to convince the presiding federal judge that her agency is doing all it can do to provide an accounting of the funds.
According to Interior, in the entire history of the trust accounts, some $13 billion has passed to Indian "beneficiaries" -- a term that covers both individuals and tribes.
If one is to believe the Indian lawyers, that means the government failed to pay more than 90 percent of what it was obligated to pay.
Somebody is exaggerating, and there is good reason to believe it is the lawyers for the Indians.
What the lawyers seem to want is for the government to be forced into a lump-sum settlement. If the government has to admit it can't do a full and accurate accounting going back 116 years, the Indians win. [If the] government instead is forced to spend hundreds of millions billions to do that accounting, that also makes a settlement attractive. Under this scenario, the Indians also win.
The one thing the plaintiffs probably don't want is for the government to successfully demonstrate what actually happened to those trust funds according to the rules that Congress enacted just eight years ago.
It is because of this dynamic that the lawyers for the Indians continue to increase the size of their claims. At one point they said the amount owed (sometimes called the amount "stolen") was $10 billion. That is a tantalizing figure, high enough to make a plaintiff's lawyer drool, but it is nothing compared to $137 billion.
According to Norton's agency, as of Dec. 31, 2000, there were 235,984 individual Indian trust accounts; during that year, these account-holders received $226 million. That works out to just less than $1,000 per account-holder. On that same date, the balances in the trust were $348 million, a figure that represents less than $1,500 per account. The department has requested a budget of more than $83 million for trust management and accounting. The office of the special trustee has requested an increase of 44 percent over the prior year.
It is obvious the Interior Department isn't sitting on its hands. The public needs to remember that the secretary of Interior is not a completely free agent in these matters. She is compelled to follow past directives of Congress and is dependent upon the budgets provided by Congress.
Historical guilt can only go so far. Wrongs committed long ago against American Indians can't justify a requirement that the government do the impossible or blindly write a settlement check based on the ever-shifting claims of plaintiffs' attorneys.
Al Knight (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the Denver Post editorial board. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday.
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A letter to the editor in response
Time can't erase or minimize Indian trust-fund losses
Re: "Who is stealing now?" Jan. 8 Al Knight column.
I am a mixed-blood American Indian of the Choctaw and Ani'yunwiyah nations. I am responding to Al Knight's column in which he attempts to sufficiently analyze the complex situation of the Indian trust accounts, utilizing a small amount of paragraphs and all the while finding sarcastic humor in "how the government tricked Indian tribes, violated treaties and continues to break its promises."
In his analysis of the figures involved in the claims of hundreds of thousands of American Indians, he declares that "somebody is exaggerating," insinuating that lawyers are in sole charge of deciphering the total monetary and land losses that these families have suffered at the hands of the United States government ever since the tragic days of the Homestead Act.
He declares that it would be ridiculous for the government to have to spend money to investigate whether or not the Indian claimants' charges are accurate. He does not reveal that this same government routinely destroyed Indian records which would have provided this precise information.
Elsewhere, he implies that "just less than $1,000 per account holder" would suffice for the horrific loss of land and time that it has taken families to get any money at all. He fails to mention the tens of thousands who have been born and died since that time, including many who lived to be more than 100 years old. In addition, more than 500 million acres that were never ceded in treaty are still in dispute today.
Knight matter-of-factly declares, "Wrongs committed long ago against American Indians can't justify a requirement that the government do the impossible or blindly write a settlement check." Were it not for red tape attached to this issue since the late 1800s, this issue would not even exist. The mere passage of time is not a reason to dismiss legitimate and legally based claims, especially when they affect the minority that is still the poorest in this country -- and the one that is indigenous to it.
Given the complexity of the trust fund accounting scandal—roughly ten times the size of Enron—it would be surprising if estimates of the amounts owed didn't change. With hundreds of lawyers working for 500,000 plaintiffs on a century-plus-old case, to expect one fixed estimate of the amount due is absurd.
The plaintiffs have made it clear they would like a full accounting of the trust funds. But not according to the 1994 law limiting the accounting, which arguably violates the Department of Interior's trust obligation to Indians. They want a full accounting, period.
When Knight writes "somebody is exaggerating" and "it is obvious the Interior Department isn't sitting on its hands," he must be trying out a comedy routine. What he neglected to say is that Gale Norton is the second Secretary of the Interior to be found guilty of contempt of court for her failure to resolve the trust scandal. Judge Royce Lamberth specified that Norton was "unfit" to handle the job.
So whom do you believe: the lawyers working selflessly for Indians cheated of decades of earnings, or the convict Norton and her shill Knight, who somehow fails to mention her proven dereliction of duty? Who is stealing now? It's still the US government.
This screed about shifty, thieving Indians is a variation on the uncivilized or good-for-nothing Indians.
Indians as welfare recipients
. . .
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