Kansas City – Ten years ago this weekend a group of Native Americans sued the federal government, charging that they had been systematically swindled by its management of their land. A judge ordered the Interior department to launch a massive accounting investigation to track down billions of dollars flowing in and out of Indian Trust Funds over nearly a century. As KCUR's Frank Morris reports, the work going on deep under ground, in Lenexa.
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For almost a century one federal report after another has criticize exonerated the Department of Interior over the way it's managed Indian Trusts. By 1960 when the Rat Pack Movie Ocean's 11 came out, the trust was something of a joke.
Secretary of Indian Affairs
Hey fellas, you have any idea how much money a man could steal, if he were something like Commissioner of Indian Affairs. That's what I'll be commissioner of Indian Affairs! That you'll never be. Why? Because I'm going to be Secretary of the Intertiror and I won't appoint you Commissioner of Indian Affairs .
The real person president Bush appointed to be special Trustee for American Indians, Ross O. Swimmer says things have changed dramatically.
This is a new day in Indian Country. It's a new day in the Indian accounting. Never before has the Indian Trust been treated as a trust in the way in which we're doing to day.
It use to be that Federal Indian trust documents were scattered throughout all 50 states some in federal facilities, others jammed haphazardly into barns, attics and storage sheds. Nobody was even sure what was out there. But then a judge ordered the interior department to collect boxes full of Indian records --old photos, school projects, leases and check legers-- from across the country. They truck them here to this loading dock in Lenexa Kansas.
AMB dock door.
The boxes are sorted and driven down into a dusty old limestone mine, 100 feet below the grassy rolling hills.
Armed guards stop pens, cameras, gum and even drinks from entering American Indian Records Repository The National Archives runs the storage facility here, and ranks it among the most advanced in the world. Ross Swimmer is visibly proud of the facility.
So we're going back, now trying to correct what we didn't do in the past. We're trying to show everyone where their money came from, what the transaction was, how much it was, when they received it, and what was left in their account afterwards.
The documents, some arriving covered with mold or mouse dung are painstakingly salvaged, by people like Gerry Adams who stands at a vacuum table gingerly brushing rumpled old papers shipped here from Arizona.
It had muddy water run through it, because you open it up and that's not mold, that's just dirt
A national archives worker files uniform white boxes, of documents on tall metal shelves that stretch almost endlessly into the dim light. There are 145-thousand boxes here, 300-million documents, with new shipments arriving each week. Kathy Ramirez, a Pueblo Laguna Indian is with the Office of the Special Trust.
We're doing something that no one, I don't think, has ever done in the federal financial system.
In towering subterranean rooms, with white painted rough stone and cinderblock walls stretching the length of football fields, workers line up at folding tables crowded with computers and the ever present white file boxes. Meticulously following rigid protocol, they sort, code data and scan documents. Others paw through the boxes looking for old check legers or leases. Following one transaction from start to finish can take months and cost up to 3,000 dollars. The total cost of the project will hit 200-million dollars next fiscal year and Ross Swimmer says it's turned up very few discrepancies.
We're spending a whole lot of money to do an accounting.
Is it needed? I don't know. Are they entitled to it? They're beneficiaries of a trust. And the court says they're entitled to an accounting, a complete accounting of everything that went in and everything that went out.
They know they can't do an accounting. It's ridiculous. It's totally ridiculous. I think the entire process has to stop.
Eloise Cobell who launched the class action suit against the government 10 years ago, owns land on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. The government manages her land, and that of about 240-thousand others, leasing the oil, timber, mining and grazing rights, collecting the money in a trust and distributing it to the owners. The checks are often smaller than recipients expect, and come with no explanation of where the money came from, or how it was generated. The process has been somewhat mysterious to many Indians and compounded by the fact that no one's ever attempted a complete accounting. But Cobell says now it's too late.
People destroy the records that they don't want anyone to see, and we know that that has happened in this case.
The government does admit that some documents are missing. Cobell and her lawyers contend that there's not enough actually in the archives to prove the government paid out anything. They say they'd settle for about one fifth of the money that should have come to Indians over the years . with compounded interested that amounts to 27-and a half Billion dollars.
Back down in the cavern, Ross Swimmer says he's also eager to bury the 10 year old lawsuit. But, absent evidence of wrong doing, he encourages congress to take a different approach.
Now we could say that this accounting is going to cost us another 200-500 million dollars well, there's a number. Let's just pay the plaintiff.
For all its effort the mammoth accounting project under the Kansas prairie may never accurately determine weather or not the government cheated hundreds of thousands of Indians out of money rightfully theirs. But one sure legacy will be an archive that Native Americans will likely draw on for generations to come.
FM, KCUR NEWS