Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: The Great American Land Row - Native Americans and U.S. Government Allotment Acts
American Indians are embroiled in a $137bn lawsuit with the US Government over land royalties. The saga, which has been going on for seven years, rests on a judge's decision, which is expected shortly.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an arm of the US Department of the Interior, is being sued in a class action on behalf of 280,000 American Indians.
The plaintiff, Eloise Cobell, a 56-year-old Blackfeet Indian from Browning, Montana, claims billions went missing because records were not kept properly and trusts were pilfered by the US Government.
The dispute dates back to the 1887 Dawes Act, which seized Indian land - much of it rich in natural resources - and gave it to white-owned companies to exploit.
History of the dispute
1877: Battle of the Little Big Horn, followed by defeat of Crazy Horse and end of Indian Wars
1887: Dawes Act leads to land being parcelled up and sold off
1996: Eloise Cobell launches lawsuit, claiming the trusts have been mismanaged
2002: The Department of the Interior is ordered to account for all the money
2003: Judge will decide whose accounting plan to adopt
Under the Act the land was divided into plots of between 160 and 180 acres.
Each Indian family was assigned a parcel of land, which was alien to their culture in which all land belonged to the tribe.
The idea was for them to be "compensated" in perpetuity for the use of their land.
The author of the Act claimed land ownership would "civilise" the Indians, but disputes arose almost immediately.
To be civilised is...to wear civilised clothes, cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey and own property.
- Congressman Henry Dawes
Author of Dawes Act 1887
Mrs Cobell, a trained accountant, told BBC News Online: "I remember, as a child, hearing people complaining about not getting their cheques. They would go to the BIA office to complain and they'd be treated like dirt."
She launched the class action in 1996 and has already ruffled some very illustrious feathers.
Held in contempt
In 1999 a judge examining the case cited two of President Clinton's Cabinet Secretaries, Bruce Babbitt and Robert Rubin, for contempt because of their departments' failure to produce key documents.
Then in 2002 Judge Royce Lamberth found President Bush's Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, in contempt for her failure to comply with earlier court orders.
Now, after a 44-day trial, Judge Lamberth is considering two options.
He could accept the BIA's plan for accounting of the money in the trust accounts or he could agree to a far more radical approach suggested by Mrs Cobell's team.
Washington did not believe the Indians capable of exploiting the land themselves.
Mrs Cobell said: "They said we were stupid, incompetent and dumb and couldn't run our own financial affairs. They said they would manage it to the highest fiduciary standards."
But she said that in the intervening years the records of these accounts, known as the Individual Indian Money (IIM) Trusts, became shambolic.
The federal authorities lost track of the account holders and destroyed or mislaid records, said Mrs Cobell.
As a result hundreds of thousands of Native Americans allegedly never got money which was owed to them.
Mrs Cobell, and the team of lawyers and accountants working for her, said the trusts had not been audited since 1887 and she estimated up to $137bn had gone missing.
Some of the tribes affected
Sioux/Lakota (South Dakota)
Cheyenne (South Dakota)
Nez Perce/Nimi'ipuu (Idaho)
She said some of the Indian families relied on the money to pay their grocery bills.
Mrs Cobell said the government tightly regulated privately-run trust funds but added: "When the shoe is on the other foot they don't have to comply with any law. They have run our trusts like a bank totally out of control.
"This is worse than Enron or WorldCom. It's the biggest scandal since the Teapot Dome affair in the 1920s."
Mrs Cobell said: "It's ironic that the US Government, which has been beating up on the Swiss over Jewish money from the 1940s, was responsible for perpetrating an even bigger outrage on the Indians."
She is hoping, with 2004 being an election year, Indians in several key swing states - such as Nevada, Arizona and Montana - can bring pressure to bear on the Bush administration to settle the dispute and agree for the government to pay the missing money.
But BIA spokesman Dan DuBray said the figures given by the plaintiff were "fanciful" and he said the case had been "infected with hyperbole and bad feeling".
Mr DuBray, whose own father is a Sioux with an IIM account of his own, said if the judge agreed to the plaintiff's plan it would take 10 years and cost $2.4bn to check all transactions.
He said this type of "archaeological accounting" would not benefit those in Indian country, some of whose IIM accounts earned only a few cents a year.
American Indian decline
In 1492 it is estimated there were six million Indians in the territory of what became the United States. By 1900, decimated by disease, starvation and war, that number had fallen to 237,000
Mr DuBray said: "There is no question there is hundreds of years of poor history between the government and the Indians. But this case is not to do with Wounded Knee or the Trail of Tears."
He said: "The plaintiffs have suggested that we used Indian trust money to pay off the national debt, and to bail out Chrysler in the 1970s. But there is no truth to any of these grandiose allegations."
Vernon Bellecourt, the director of international affairs with the American Indian Movement, said they backed Mrs Cobell's lawsuit and added: "It's outrageous that this has been allowed to happen."
Speaking from a sun dance ceremony in Montana, Mr Bellecourt told BBC News Online: "We have been the victims of an American holocaust.
"They took our land away - sacred land, like the Black Hills (in South Dakota) - and now we find out they have stolen our money."
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2003/08/25 02:46:20 GMT
© BBC MMIII
The History Of Allotment, Part 1
By The Indian Land Tenure Foundation
The U.S. Federal Government began the policy of allotting Indian land as early as 1798. Several treaties with Indian tribes included provisions that stated land would be divided among their individual members. After 1871, however, Congress declared that no further treaties would be made and all future dealings with Indians would be conducted through legislation. Although Congress passed a few acts that allotted land on specific Indian reservations, there was no vehicle to allot lands to individual Indians across the United States. Eventually, there was a push for a national federal policy to break up Indian land and assimilate native people.
The allotment advocates had several reasons for supporting allotment. First, they considered the Indian way of life and collective use of land as communistic and backwards. They also saw the ownership of private property as an essential part of civilization that would give Indians a reason to stay in one place, cultivate land, disregard the cohesiveness of the tribe, and adopt the habits, practices, and interests of the new settler population. Furthermore, many thought that Indians had too much land. These people were eager to see Indian lands opened up for settlement as well as for railroads, mining, or forestry.
The allotment advocates eventually succeeded in convincing the federal government to adopt the policy nationally. In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act. The Allotment Act was applied to reservations by the president whenever, in his opinion, it was advantageous for particular Indian tribes. Members of the selected tribe or reservation were given permission to select pieces of land - usually around 40 to 160 acres in size - for themselves and their children. If the amount of reservation land exceeded the amount needed for allotment, then the federal government could negotiate to purchase the land from the tribes and then sell it to non-tribal settlers. Sixty million acres were either ceded outright or sold to non-Indian homesteaders and corporations as "surplus lands".
Furthermore, under the policy of allotment, Indian land ownership was not the same as land ownership for other homesteaders. A non-Indian settler could sell (or "alienate") his land because he had complete ("fee simple") ownership. Under the General Allotment Act, Indians had only partial ownership because the United States considered itself to have legal title to the land. Indians only had beneficial ("equitable" or "usufruct") title. In other words, while the allotment was held "in trust" by the federal government, the Indian landholder could use the land but not sell it. However, the act stated that 25 years after the allotment was issued, Indians would be given complete, fee simple ownership of the land. At that point, the landholder could sell it to anyone.
Although the General Allotment Act was the first major piece of legislation designed to allot Indian reservations across the United States, many other tribes were allotted at different times under special legislation. These acts usually are similar to the General Allotment Act but often contain special provisions. These acts and pre-Dawes Act treaties can be found in the Tribe/Reservation Specific Information section.
Tuesday, August 26, 2003