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A Blackfeet's crusade to settle accounts with US

By Todd WilkinsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 20, 2002


On a cold wind-blown slope outside town, there is a piece of hallowed ground called Ghost Ridge. It was here, a century ago, that Blackfeet Indians perished after the US government failed to deliver promised food rations.

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And it is here, today, that Elouise Cobell sometimes walks as she gathers strength for her ongoing crusade: Forcing the government to hand over billions of dollars she alleges it has withheld from native Americans.

"When I'm feeling exhausted," says the Blackfeet accountant and banker, "I visit Ghost Ridge and I wonder how painful it must've been for my people to starve to death in the middle of winter. Then I have a chat with myself ... 'Elouise, what are you complaining about? You're a wimp if you can't deal with this.' "

Mrs. Cobell's relentless attention to the details of financial accounting has made the bashful woman a living legend in the eyes of native Ameri- cans and a thorn in the side of bureaucrats in two presidential administrations.

She's already won several skirmishes in her David-like battle with the government Goliath. Her class-action lawsuit against the US government seeks $12 billion in restitution for revenues owed from mining, logging, and other development on millions of acres of Indian land.

The suit, on behalf of 500,000 native Americans, both living and dead, revolves around the inability of the US Interior and Treasury Departments to provide written records of what happened to billions of dollars owed by the Individual Indian Monies trust fund, set up a century ago to manage Indian lands and the revenues produced by them. The trust currently generates about $500 million a year – with payments ranging from pennies to millions of dollars for individual Indians, depending on the size of their shareholdings.

This case is the native-American equivalent of the Enron scandal, says Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians. "The only difference is that the Cobell case is bigger ... the government is playing the role of Enron, and this has been going on a lot longer."

The case has consumed the energies of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who faces contempt-of-court charges because she was unable to produce financial records.

Numerous investigations have confirmed shoddy bookkeeping for more than a century. When pressed by US District Judge Royce Lamberth, Ms. Norton and her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, admitted that many key accounting documents have been lost, destroyed, or never existed.

The Interior Department declined to comment on the case.

As a child on the Blackfeet reservation not far from the Canadian border, Cobell was raised without plumbing, electricity, telephone, or running water. A vivid memory is of her parents and grandparents sitting around a woodstove complaining about government checks not arriving or amounting to less than they should have been. She often asked why that was.

Only after serving as Blackfeet tribe treasurer did she get answers. Noticing irregularities in royalty checks to tribal members, she began to keep records.

'Nothing matched up'

"When I tried to correlate the payments with government books kept by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, nothing matched up. Some months, a check would arrive, but then it might take months before the next one came in the mail," she recalls.

What started out as her challenge to reconcile differences on the Blackfeet Reservation broadened to dozens of other reservations and the accounts of hundreds of thousands of Indians. The government admits it doesn't even have valid addresses for 50,000 who are due money.