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Washington's rip-off of Indian trust funds
"They robbed an entire race"

By Nicole Colson | September 27, 2002 | Page 2

A FEDERAL judge last week held Interior Secretary Gale Norton in contempt of court for her part in the federal government's rip-off of Native Americans.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lambeth issued a 267-page opinion ripping Norton and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb for failing to comply with court orders in a 1996 civil lawsuit filed by a group of American Indians. The suit charges that the federal government has mismanaged American Indian trust funds for years and withheld billions of dollars.

In 1887, after stealing two-thirds of what little remained of Native American land, Congress reorganized the remaining 57 million acres in a trust run by the Interior Department. With little input from Native tribes, the department leased the land to white ranchers, oil companies, mining firms and timber companies, which made a killing. Little of the money from the leases made it to Native American reservations, where average annual per capita income is $10,000 and unemployment hovers around 70 percent.

The class-action lawsuit is an attempt to get the money for the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans it belongs to. The total is estimated at more than $40 billion, but no one knows for sure because the trust's records are screwed up from years of mismanagement.

"This scandal makes Enron look like a pimple," Elouise Cobell, a leader of the Blackfeet tribe who initiated the lawsuit, told journalist Jeffrey St. Clair. "It's worse than Enron, because it's the government that is lying, covering up and breaching its trust. They stole people's entire life savings. They robbed an entire race of people."

Norton and McCaleb aren't even the first federal officials to be held in contempt of court over the case. In 1999, Lambeth also held Bill Clinton's Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt for failing to turn over documents and information.

"In February of 1999, at the end of the first contempt trial in this matter, I stated that 'I have never seen more egregious misconduct by the federal government,'" Lambeth wrote last week. "Now, at the conclusion of the second contempt trial in this action, I stand corrected. The Department of Interior has truly outdone itself this time."

Lambeth said that the Feds have done "virtually nothing" to provide information related to the case and are unable--or unwilling--to provide accurate accounting information to beneficiaries of the trusts. "I may have life tenure" as a federal judge, Lambeth wrote, "but at the rate the Department of Interior is progressing, that is not a long enough appointment."

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