Indians bring dispute back to Congress

Sunday, December 4th 2005, 5:01 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Opponents in the dispute over Indian trust money will head to Capitol Hill again this week, as lawmakers continue to press for a resolution to the long-running lawsuit.

While hopeful that Congress will eventually play a meaningful role, an attorney for the Indians in the class-action suit said the talk so far hasn't translated into action, The Oklahoman reported from its Washington bureau.

"It's just hearing after hearing after hearing and not a whole lot happens," Keith Harper, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Resources Committee have introduced legislation similar to a bill authored in the Senate that could serve as a blueprint for a settlement. But it's missing a magic number-- the settlement offer from the government.

During the summer, some of the Indian plaintiffs in the case, led by Elouise Cobell, laid out their 50 principles for a fair settlement and said they would accept $27.5 billion. The number was rejected by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee.

The House Resources Committee, which has held numerous hearings on the Indian trust case, has scheduled another for Thursday to discuss a settlement.

"As the committee moves this bill through the process, works with members of Congress and conducts ongoing discussions with Indian Country, we hope to shape this into the most equitable solution for all parties," Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, said of his legislation.

The lawsuit was filed in 1996 in federal district court by Cobell, of Montana, who is a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, and other Indian plaintiffs.

The suit claimed the government failed to meet its legal obligation in managing thousands of individual Indian trust accounts that hold the proceeds from leases on Indian land for drilling, grazing and other uses. The trust system dates to 1887.

A U.S. district judge agreed with the Indians and ordered reforms. He told the Interior Department it must do a detailed recreation of tens of thousands of accounts dating back scores of years.

Last month, the judge's order regarding the "historical accounting" was overturned by a federal appeals court in Washington, which means a major aspect of the case-- how much money should be in the accounts-- is still being contested more than nine years after the case was filed.

There are other issues being fought vigorously as well, including the security of the Interior Department's computers holding trust account information.

Harper said the court case could last at least another two years and any final decision would likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.