Indian Trust

Huerfano, NM – Today in Washington the House Resources Committee will discuss a possible settlement to the nearly decade-long Indian trust lawsuit. It's the largest class action suit ever filed against the federal government. The plaintiffs accuse the government of mismanaging their trust accounts to the tune of billions of dollars accounts that hold the revenues from oil and gas drilling and other leases on their land. From KNAU's Indian Country News Bureau, Daniel Kraker reports on how the lawsuit is affecting the Navajo Nation.

Sam and Esther Valdez live in a small, cinder block home in Blanco Canyon, about 40 miles southeast of Farmington, New Mexico. They don't have a telephone. They only got running water a year ago.

SFX: Sneak up sound of kids playing

Their great grand daughter is playing in their front yard, running around two wells and other tanks and equipment wells which for decades have pumped natural gas.

SFX: post kids playing for a second or two before the actuality, duck under

AX: Esther speaking in Navajo, Ervin translating 9 wells that are producing, they each have production, she doesn't know if she's getting exactly what's due her.

Esther Valdez says nine wells have pumped oil and gas from beneath her land sine the 1950s. Her nephew Ervin Chavez is president of the Shii Shi Keyah Allottee Association, which advocates on behalf of Navajo trust account holders. Chavez says for a long time his aunt received only about 150 dollars for an entire year from those nine wells.

AX: This is a prime example of Esther Valdez, Sam Valdez, looking within maybe 100 feet from their house, and there sits a tank, a separator, a dehydrator, a gas well, and they know that it's producing they see trucks backing up to that tank, and they see trucks loading up liquid from that tank and driving off, yet they go to the post office and they don't see any revenues, they don't see a check coming in.

Esther Valdez actually does receive a check each month. And the amount of those checks has increased in the past five years to eight to 900 dollars a month. Still, Elouise Cobell, who's the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the federal government, says that's not enough to make up for years of being shortchanged.
She says she hears versions of the same story throughout Indian Country. It's the same story she heard growing up on Montana's Blackfeet reservation.

AX: We heard it from our parents, grandparents, people talking about being cheated, gosh if I received my money off my land, I see oil companies pumping our oil, why can't I get my money?

Cobell has devoted much of her life to answering that question. She became an accountant, then a banker, and founded the first national bank on an Indian reservation. But by 1996, after years of phone calls and letters, the government still wouldn't, or couldn't, give her answers.

AX: When I continued to ask questions, and said, this is so wrong, people haven't received an accounting, and one of them said, if you don't like it just sue us, that's exactly what they told me.

That's exactly what she did. The lawsuit is now nearly ten years old. But the roots of the case go back more than a century, when the federal government divided millions of acres of Indian land into individual allotments. That land is held in trust by the Interior Department, which leases the land to oil and gas companies, as well as other commercial interests, and then pays the individual Indian account holders revenues from those leases. At least that's the way the system is supposed to work.

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This fall Cobell and her attorneys traveled to the Four Corners region to update Navajo allottees on the case. The San Juan River Basin is California's largest supplier of natural gas. Keith Harper, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund, told a standing room only crowd at the Huerfano chapter house about their visit with Sam and Esther Valdez.

AX: We drove out there, and all I can say is you see all the oil production, you see all the gas production, you see all the pipelines and the rights of way, and you see people without running water, there's something wrong with that picture, people should be living in palaces and they don't have running water. We're not stupid people. We know when we're being ripped off. And you're being ripped off. The Cobell case is about trying to stop that.

The plaintiffs want payment, with interest, of all unpaid revenues from Indian leases dating back to the late 1800s; an accounting of past revenues; and a new system to handle future revenues. The department of the interior has already spent 100 million dollars trying to account for the billions of dollars allegedly missing. Ross Swimmer, Special Trustee for American Indians at the Department of the Interior, says so far they've found little evidence of mismanagement.

AX: What we are showing by doing the accounting is that in fact there were some errors made, so far it looks like they were few and very little money. On the other hand, if you're going to continue to prosecute a case for an accounting that's going to cost both sides millions of dollars a year, does it make sense to put a little money on the table along with the accounting and say let's get out of this. The concern with the government's side is what is a little money.

Swimmer says any settlement should be in the millions of dollars. The plaintiffs counter with 27.5 billion. And they say that's a substantial discount from the more than 100 billion they're rightfully owed. Arizona senator John McCain has introduced settlement legislation that tries to strike some middle ground. McCain was unavailable for comment, despite repeated interview requests. But in a committee hearing earlier this year, he acknowledged any settlement should be for a substantial amount of money.

AX: While the legislation does not specify a dollar amount, it does make clear that the resolution will be for billions of dollars, at a minimum, for the class of hundreds of thousands described in the bill, the bill proposes that each receive thousands of dollars in per capita payments alone.

SFX: someone asking Elouise for an autograph. 1:00 Elouise, good to see you, thank you for coming, we're going to win, we're going to win

At the Huerfano Chapter House on the Navajo Nation, Elouise Cobell was treated like a folk hero

SFX: someone asking Elouise for an autograph. 1:00 Elouise, good to see you, thank you for coming, we're going to win, we're going to win

as trust account holders thanked her for coming and asked for her autograph. Cobell says she was unhappy with McCain's proposal, but admits it's a starting point.

AX: I do see it as a window of opportunity, if it's fair it's an opportunity for IIM account holders that are getting up in age that they can receive some money, so we can't let that go by.

Her fellow plaintiffs here in Northwest New Mexico urged her not to give up, though, even if the lawsuit drags on for another ten years. For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker