Native Americans Push Congress to Alter BIA MONEY MANAGEMENT MATTERS

By Barbara Ferry, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 17, 1996 | Go to article overview

Native Americans Push Congress to Alter BIA MONEY MANAGEMENT MATTERS


Barbara Ferry, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Elouise Cobell first sensed something was wrong with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a student, when she got a summer job at a BIA office in Montana. "{People} would wait for hours. I didn't understand what was going on," she says.

Years later, as treasurer for her Blackfeet tribe, her suspicions were confirmed. The BIA oversees trust accounts worth billions for individuals and tribes, accounts that government reviews now show to have been grossly mismanaged for decades.

Today Ms. Cobell is one of five native American leaders behind a class action suit filed against the BIA by the Boulder, Colo.-based Native American Rights Fund. The $540 million suit, filed on behalf of 300,000 Indians, may mark the start of a shift away from reliance on the federal agency for financial management. Government malfeasance and a developing financial strength and savvy (in some cases, gleaned from running casino operations) have already prompted some tribes to take their accounts out of federal hands. The Oneidas of Wisconsin have managed their own accounts since the 1980s and tribal attorney Aurene Martin says other tribes will follow. "Tribes are thinking they could do a better job," she says. "They wouldn't do any worse." A recent independent review of 2,000 tribal accounts estimated $695 million was mishandled in the past 20 years. Auditors couldn't locate records for $2.4 billion in transactions and say individual accounts, which range from 35 cents to $1 million, are in even worse shape. "If your bank...couldn't tell you how much you had, you'd be pretty upset," Cobell says. Next week Congress will hold the last of several hearings to see if the tribes are willing to accept the findings of their investigation and what legislation needs to be introduced to compensate them. "If we made a mistake, we'll pay," says Ed Cohen, deputy solicitor for the Department of the Interior. "But I think it would be far more productive if we were handling these issues legislatively, rather than litigating them. …

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