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The Indian Enron Case Might End in Token Settlement
by Yudy Chen
December 6, 2004

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Senator Campbell recently indicated that Congress may impose a settlement on the Indian Trust suit to break a deadlock in negotiations. "I don't support the idea of Congress imposing a settlement, but if we don't get something moving, they will do it,” the Senator told the Denver Rocky Mountain News.

The Indian Trust suit (Cobell v. Norton) is a class-action lawsuit filed in 1996 against the Federal Government, demanding billions of dollars belonging to over half a million Native Americans, held in trust since 1887. Estimates of the total of mismanaged funds range from 10 to 140 billion dollars, outranking the Enron scandal in scale. This case is huge and should be all over the front pages of the mainstream media.

As if massacres, genocide, rape, and 116 years of robbery weren’t enough, the past eight years of trials have been met with disgraceful actions by the administration. The HR 2961 Interior Spending Bill (passed just over a year ago) which provided 3 billion dollars for fighting the California wildfires included a midnight rider, or “stealth legislation”, barring the Interior Department for a year from starting the court-ordered accounting task which would determine how much the Government owes Native American landowners. This last minute language was in neither the Senate nor the House bills in their original forms, and lawmakers have accused the administration of unconstitutional interference. Meanwhile, the Indian people are impoverished.

"We have a lot of Indian people dying, waiting for the money," said Campbell. "The ones I've talked with want to settle."

Many of the Indian Americans that are owed money are living in extreme poverty with the unemployment in certain reservations as high as 80%. Additionally, the reservations in the west have the highest infant mortality rate, the highest incidence of diabetes, and among the shortest life expectancies in this country. Many of them live in shacks with no running water or electricity, and they are being denied money that is rightfully theirs, money they need to pay for basic necessities. This is a flat-out humanitarian crisis right here in our country.

Given the staggering amount owed to the Indians, it is no surprise that the administration wants this “nuisance” to go away. Returning the money to poverty-stricken indigenous people is not a priority of the government, considering they have more important things to do, like killing people overseas.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has clearly stated that the parties had one year from last October to make progress on the case. Since then, mediation efforts have been utterly futile. Elouise Cobell, the leading plaintiff, has stated: “Unfortunately, the government has, so far, acted with the same bad faith in mediation that they have shown in administering the trust and litigating the Cobell case. It is self-evident that to have any chance of success, mediation must have two participants who want to resolve the conflict. In this mediation, it has become obvious the government wants to resolve nothing.”

John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) noted in an October 15 letter: ''We think the Administration believes that notwithstanding its resistance to a fair settlement, Congress would, in the end, intervene and enact legislation that would attempt to eliminate the rights we have won for the plaintiff class.''

After eight years of settlement, it might end with a congressionally mandated settlement which will, as Keith Harper (attorney for NARF) states, “arbitrarily set the cost of property”. Additionally, Senator Campbell has warned of congressional efforts to settle the case through appropriations to the Interior Department.

The lack of media coverage is making it all too easy for our administration to succeed in making this fiasco go away. It is long overdue for us to write to our representatives and senators, demanding a fair and just resolution. The Indians deserve nothing less than a complete and accurate accounting of their trust assets or a full compensation to each of the individual Indian beneficiaries. The money must go directly to the tribes, not the Interior Department, not the BIA. It has been the intention of the past two administrations to drag this case out, hoping to exhaust the assets and will of the Native Americans. Without more attention on this case, it may end in a token settlement, continuing centuries of injustice towards the American Indians.

Yudy Chen may be reached at