WASHINGTON, May 11 — A federal appeals court was told today that it should offer 500,000 Native Americans some form of “rough justice” as a result of the federal government’s acknowledged mismanagement of their trust accounts.
Attorney Dennis M. Gingold, who represents the Indians in a 13-year-old class action lawsuit, said justice for the Native American trust account beneficiaries cannot be complete because so many records of what happened to their trust lands and funds are missing.
That means some form of “rough justice” is required, Gingold said, adding that any resolution of the case must be fair.
“If not, we’ll all be here another 13 years,” Gingold told a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Government lawyers said they want the case declared at an end and the Indians given nothing at all. Alisa Klein, an appellate lawyer with the Justice Department’s Civil Division, argued that the Indians are due nothing.
Plaintiffs opposed an llth-hour effort by the Osage Tribe to intervene in the case and take control of its members’ individual trust accounts. Plaintiffs have fully represented the interests of individual Osage tribal members from the outset of the litigation in 1996.
Individual Osage tribal members are clearly part of the lawsuit, because their trust accounts were always classified as the property of individuals and not the tribe, Gingold told the court.
After the hour-long hearing, Lead Plaintiff Elousie Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation from Browning, Mont., said that the government continued to mislead the appeals court about how the trust accounts have been managed. The accounts have never been audited, she noted, pointing out that the lower court had held an accounting remains “impossible.” “I am very optimistic,” she told reporters. “The court asked very good questions.”
As for the idea of “rough justice,” she said: “We all understand what’s going to happen.” She said any sum that is finally approved by the court will be distributed after additional hearings and under court supervision.
The three-judge panel gave no indication when it would rule.
The Indian Trust was established by Congress in 1887. It included millions of acres of valuable lands in the West owned by individual Indians, whom lawmakers believed could not manage those lands. That job was given to the Interior Department, which has repeatedly acknowledged in the lawsuit that it mismanaged the trust accounts.
For additional information:
Bill McAllister (media calls only)