- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Seventy feet beneath the prairie, the government is filling limestone caverns — protected by guards and a bomb-sniffing dog — with truckloads of American Indian financial and cultural records.

What is ground zero for an accounting that will take seven years and cost $335 million owes its existence to a bitter class-action lawsuit brought against the Interior Department a decade ago. Still, it’s only a short version of the historical accounting that Indians demanded, but no longer want — because they don’t think it can be done properly.

The Indians say the government mismanaged a trust in their names for 120 years and owes them tens of billions of dollars.

The dispute dates to 1887, when Congress made the Interior Department trustee for 145 million acres of Indian lands. Indians were supposed to benefit, but the government gave most of the land to white settlers.

Today, the department manages 10 million acres of trust land for individual Indians and 46 million acres for tribes. In 1996, the Indians sued to reconcile their historical accounts. They, and Congress, demanded an audit. The Indians say they may be owed a century’s worth of grazing rents, oil and gas royalties and timber sales from the land, plus interest.

Both sides agree $13 billion was collected from 1909 to 2001.

The Indians had said that the unpaid interest could be more than $150 billion, but they have offered to drop the whole thing if the government coughs up $27.5 billion. That money would be spread among individual Indian account holders, about a fifth of the nation’s 2.5 million Native Americans, who live mainly in the West.

No way, the Bush administration replied: The government has been forwarding most of the rents and royalties to tribes and individual Indians all along.

“It could be just $30 million that’s owed to the Indians,” said Ross O. Swimmer, the Interior Department’s special trustee for American Indians and a member of Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation.

Ironically, the government is relying on the Indian-demanded accounting — actually, it’s a statistical sampling — to come up with figures that Indians say low-ball what they’re owed.

“It’s a number in the m’s, not the b’s,” said Fritz Scheuren, who oversees the department’s statistical sampling and was president of the American Statistical Association last year.

The Indian plaintiffs say too many records have been destroyed to come up with an accurate figure.

“The documents that the government has preserved are a fraction of those that have been lost and destroyed,” said Dennis Gingold, an attorney for the suing Indians. “Massive hard copy and electronic destruction … make the accounting legally and factually impossible.”

The Indians’ biggest ally is embattled U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, a former Reagan administration official whose strongly worded rulings condemn the Interior Department. After nine years presiding over the case, Judge Lamberth concluded in July that the agency is a “pathetic outpost” that has bungled its fiduciary duty.

“For those harboring hope that the stories of murder, dispossession, forced marches, assimilationist policy programs, and other incidents of cultural genocide against the Indians are merely the echoes of a horrible, bigoted government-past that has been sanitized by the good deeds of more recent history, this case serves as an appalling reminder of the evils that result when large numbers of the politically powerless are placed at the mercy of institutions engendered and controlled by a politically powerful few,” the judge wrote.

Not surprisingly, the Interior Department wants Judge Lamberth removed from the case and another judge assigned.

Down the rabbit hole, tractor-trailers disappear into an obscure grassy knoll just off the Prairie Star Parkway. Situated in an industrial park a half-hour southwest of Kansas City, the cave offers few indications that it houses a semisecretive government facility.

In dimly lit underground parking spaces, trucks disgorge box after box of documents to be cataloged, computerized and stashed away.

Two years and $120 million into the accounting, the archive has amassed 140,000 boxes with 300 million pages of old leases, bills, ledgers, account statements, school records, maps, letters and black-and-white photographs.

In a space the size of Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium and managed by the Interior Department and the National Archives, boxes extend close to the ceiling and down aisles so long they fade into the caverns.

“People come in and ask, ‘Where is the Lost Ark?’” said Jeffrey Zippin, deputy director of the Interior Department’s Office of Historical Trust Accounting.

The shelves are coated with an electrostatically charged powder to resist corrosion or chemical action. The air is kept at 60 degrees and 40 percent humidity. Security and climate controls are matched only by the National Archives in Washington and an annex in College Park.

The boxes come from about 100 of the department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs offices and National Archives’ record centers nationwide. Some are tattered, faded or water-damaged. A few were contaminated by animal droppings.

The records are an eclectic mix: 1943 photographs of Navajo women cooking; a handwritten appeal from a Great Plains Indian for compensation because some of his cattle died; and a 16-page list of Sioux Indians killed and wounded Dec. 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.

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