House committee proposes plan for Indian trust fund resolution

Sunday, July 6th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

A congressional committee has mandated a method to determine how much American Indians should have in trust accounts that hold proceeds from oil and gas revenues in Indian Country.

The mandate from the House Appropriations Committee in Washington, D.C., comes amid a costly and bitter federal lawsuit over the trust funds.

The trust manages about $400 million in more than 300,000 individual accounts and about $2.8 billion in tribal accounts.

Closing arguments are expected soon in the Indians' lawsuit, which has focused for the last two months on how the government should reconcile hundreds of thousands of individual Indian trust accounts and repair the system for managing tribal accounts.

The language approved by the committee, which is included in the spending bill for the Interior Department, would allow Indians to reach a voluntary settlement with the government. For those that didn't, statistical sampling would be used.

The bill said the committee already has appropriated ``hundreds of millions of dollars in litigation-related activities'' and ``still faces the likelihood of appropriating hundreds of millions of dollars, or possibly billions, for a historical accounting.

``The Committee believes that this contentious litigation has prevented any rational resolution regarding the individual Indian money accounts. Accordingly, the Committee has included a legislative solution that would benefit Indian country and the United States by providing a prompt, fair and just resolution to these long-standing claims,'' it said.

But Rep. Brad Carson, D-Claremore, Okla., whose district includes thousands of Indian account holders, said he would work to ensure it never becomes law.

``The language currently inserted into the Interior Department's appropriations bill would be a major blow to thousands of Native Americans in Oklahoma, not to mention hundreds of thousands across the country,'' Carson said.

John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe in Oklahoma, said the House Appropriations Committee proposal has serious flaws, but that an out-of-court settlement would solve several problems that have arisen because of the lawsuit, filed in 1996.

Berrey testified at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee in May on trust account reform efforts and is scheduled to testify at a House Resources Committee meeting on whether a process can be developed to settle the lawsuit.

Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuit and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, said she also is planning to testify.

Cobell said the language in the House Appropriations bill is ``horrible'' and that she suspected it was the result of lobbying from the White House and the Interior Department.

``We clearly have won in the judicial system,'' Cobell said. ``And what they're wanting is a political victory.''

Cobell said it would give the government the authority to settle with Indians who don't have any information about their accounts.

For any settlement to work, she said, ``the big players should be at the table,'' including Attorney General John Ashcroft and a White House representative.


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