Restoring Trust for Indians

More than a century of mismanagement is not easily set right. But that's what federal courts are demanding of the Interior and Treasury Departments, which since 1887 have been in charge of trust accounts for hundreds of thousands of native Americans.

The accounts were set up to keep track of royalties earned from the leasing of Indian land for oil drilling, logging, grazing, or other income-producing purposes. Indians can draw on the money for living expenses and pass the accounts along to heirs.

But over the years records were poorly kept and money sometimes got siphoned off for other federal uses, fees owed the Indians were sometimes not collected, some funds simply disappeared.

A lawsuit led to a federal district court order in 1999 to overhaul the system. That ruling was upheld Feb. 23 by an appeals-court panel. The government may try further appeals, arguing that the federal departments should be allowed to pursue this matter without court supervision. But the better choice for the Interior and Treasury secretaries would be to plunge into the difficult work of clarifying what the account holders are owed.

It's a daunting task. Indian lawyers assert that as much as $10 billion may be due. The government suspects it is much less, but no one's denying a grave injustice has been done.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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