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Official defends Interior’s record on Indian Trust issues

COMMENTARY | September 19, 2005

Special Trustee Ross Swimmer responds to an item on this Web site that was highly critical of the Interior Department.

By Ross Swimmer

Special Trustee for American Indians,

U.S. Department of the Interior



Quite often I hear journalists say it a great challenge to cover the issues surrounding the Indian Trust, and the long-running Cobell v. Norton litigation. They say the issues are complicated, and difficult to explain to a general audience.


While Indian Trust issues are complex and enormously important, the actual litigation is, in fact, quite simple. I encourage reporters to ask tough questions about the Indian Trust and the litigation to help people clearly understand the issues at hand.


The Cobell v. Norton case was filed—two years after the passage of the American Indian Trust Reform Act of 1994—to compel the Department of the Interior to execute an historic accounting of the funds that came into and were disbursed from individual Indian accounts, and to provide each account holder with that accounting. Any good reporter will find that history has not been kind to the American Indian, and that there have been historical problems with the management of the trust. But in context with the litigation, he or she will also find that trust funds have certainly been distributed to Indian Trust beneficiaries, and employees at the Bureau of Indian Affairs did, in good faith, keep records to show it.

Accounting efforts continue, and it is our responsibility to report those findings to the court. Cobell spokesman Bill McAllister recently wrote, in a commentary published on your website, “Interior officials are attempting nothing short of trying to rewrite the history of the trust, contending that there are, in reality, few problems with the trust’s current accounts.” In fact, we are simply reporting our current business practices, and the new data we find as we undertake the enormous job of doing the requested historic accounting. Each quarter we publish a report to the court (available at www.doi.gov/ost) that details our efforts in trust management reform. We have also recently published a report on our progress in the historic accounting efforts.


There is widespread but erroneous belief that the Cobell litigation is about mismanagement and theft of Indian trust funds. It is not difficult to find people to profile in Indian Country who are in need—who are poor, who have health issues, who have been treated badly by society. But many reporters, and the plaintiffs, use these human interest stories to write about the litigation, and to demonize Interior. There are numerous human interest stories that should be reported in Indian Country, but the fact remains that those issues have little to do with an accounting. Good reporters asking knowledgeable questions will find the real reasons behind those difficult situations which may have their roots in other social, economic, or congressionally-required management policies. By asking more questions, reporters—and the public—will obtain a better understanding of the many issues that plague Indian Country.


An example: a beneficiary sees oil pumps going night and day on his or her trust land, but when his or her check arrives, it is just a few dollars. It is tempting to assume that the government is cheating the landowner, but does that landowner own the mineral rights to the oil beneath the surface, or did a relative previously sell the mineral rights to another party? What are the complications when leasing that land? Is the land highly divided, or “fractionated” between many heirs? Because of early inheritance laws and probate codes, it is common to have hundreds—even thousands—of Indian owners for one parcel of land. (If you divide a lease payment of $1,000 a month between 300 heirs, each beneficiary will receive a check for $3.33.) Fractionation is the most difficult problem in Indian Trust matters today, as it can render so much trust land economically useless to the beneficiary, and create volumes of red tape for potential lessees.


We encourage all beneficiaries with questions and concerns about their trust account to contact our new Trust Beneficiary Call Center, a nationwide toll-free information center, at (888) 678-6838 ext. 0.


Mr. McAllister states that Interior has conceded trust mismanagement in court. This is true. It is public information that Interior officials stipulated to a number of trust management problems in the early years of the case. What is also true is that since that time Interior officials and tribal leaders have been hard at work reforming the management of the trust and business is different in Indian Country today. It is detrimental to the Indian Trust account holder to propagate the notion that nothing has changed in ten years.


Over the past few years, Interior’s Indian Affairs staff and tribal leaders have been modernizing the trust for the benefit of Native Americans across the nation. Today, Interior reconciles cash receipts on a daily basis, and financial assets on a monthly basis. Beneficiaries are provided with quarterly financial statements, and we are beginning to issue asset statements that include comprehensive information about property owned, lease holders and more.


Our accounting systems are the same as those used in major private trust corporations, and are audited every year. We are improving trust technology across the country, and are implementing a new funds receivable system. Indian beneficiaries have better access to their account information through new trust officers and staff across Indian Country. Fiduciary trust training has been provided to nearly all Indian Affairs employees at Interior; and—for the first time in the history of the trust—most managers are seasoned professionals in trust administration.


We have also established a state-of-the-art American Indian Records Repository in Lenexa, Kansas. To date, more than 119,000 boxes containing almost a quarter of a billion pages of Indian records have been electronically indexed and stored for safeguarding and future use at the new repository. And more records are delivered to the repository each month. Staff members in Lenexa are working in conjunction with nearby Haskell Indian Nations University on an Indian records training program. Interior staff is quite proud of the new repository, and our partnership with the National Archives Records Administration. 


Our work continues but all the while, members of the press should continue to ask us questions about both the historical accounting and our reform efforts. That way, perhaps the people of Indian Country would have a better understanding of the services available to them, and the true state of the Indian Trust.

Stroking the Ego
Posted by Paul Burnett -
09/21/2005, 03:52 PM

Dear editor,

I will submit my opinion of Ross Swimmer. I will do so based on the fact that Ross Swimmer is a public figure of sorts and considering that his status is "appointed" will extrapolate lightly through out my commentary.

I sincerely wonder... How a man of Native American blood could be so motivated to behave in such a fashion?...Is it the prestige? Or the inorganic,life-less,spirit-less dogmatic theory that he recieves in exchange for the time that he gives (mazaska.)Or is he simply a man who inadvertently stands with those who stroke his ego, at any rate it is very sad, sad that the man does not feel any sense of loyalty to a very intelligent,powerful and beautiful heritage,the culture that appreciates every little bit of help, the culture of the first citizens of this continent, the culture that is diametrically opposite and that also apposes the seven deadly sins. Thank you

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