Mediators appointed to settle tribal financial dispute

Apr 25, 2004 02:00 AM

More than a century after such famous tribes as the Cherokee, Sioux and Apache were swept from their native lands, a different battle of cowboys and Indians is playing out in the United States.
Mediators have been appointed to try to finally settle a bitter financial dispute between descendants of the Native American tribes and the “cowboys” in the US government who they say have been cheating them out of money for decades.

The Indians claim that they are collectively owed about £ 80 bn for farming, timber and oil rights on 54 mm acres of land redistributed to them by an 1887 law, but that the government, through a mix of incompetence, indifference and theft, has failed to pay up.
“This is no different to the cavalry coming in and wiping out an Indian village and nobody cares,” said Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfoot tribe from Montana who is behind a class-action lawsuit filed eight years ago on behalf of half a million Native Americans. “These people are so poor. Many can't afford proper healthcare or to send their kids to school, yet their money has been stolen and the rich people are getting richer.”

The dispute can be traced back to the 1887 act, which broke up Indian reservations mainly in the Middle West where tribes had been resettled from their homelands earlier in the century. Much of the land was split into allotments and ownership passed to individual Indians, although federal government maintained land use rights.
Money raised from the land was put in a trust fund administered by the US Department of the Interior, then redistributed to individual account holders. But as landowners died and split their holdings between surviving relatives, the government's record keeping fell into disarray.

The government claims that $ 500 mm (£ 300 mm) is distributed annually from the $ 3 bn fund. The Indians say money arrives sporadically or not at all, and that corruption within the department has left billions unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, US District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who has been overseeing the lawsuit since it was launched in 1996, has described the case as “the gold standard for mismanagement by the federal government for more than a century”. In 1999 he ruled the government had breached its responsibilities to the trust.

Now Congress has stepped into the row, and following the appointment of two mediators approved by both sides, there is renewed hope that an end might be in sight.
The mediators are likely to call on attorney Alan Balaran, who was in charge of the case for five years before resigning this month citing official obstruction. He claimed to have found evidence of energy companies making significantly lower payments to Indians than to non-Indians for gas and oil rights.

Source: The Observer
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