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BUREAU OF INDIAN AFFAIRS HAS SET STANDARD OF MISMANAGEMENT

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Compared to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a mattress may not be the worst place in the world to save your money.

A century and a half of government mismanagement has enraged America's unlikeliest group of millionaires: Native Americans. But nobody seems to know how some of their money vanished.Held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, millions of dollars of Native American profits from grazing fees, oil and gas drilling and other income are unaccounted for due to government mismanagement, according to congressional investigators. Records required to balance these accounts have been destroyed as a result of storage in leaky, rodent-infested warehouses.

"We can't even sue because (BIA) doesn't have any records," said Elouise Cobell, comptroller for the Blackfoot nation, one of the few Native American tribes to establish its own bank. "If this were any private trust, people would have been sued and people would have been put in jail."

At times, the search for missing documents has literally called for an archaeological dig. One BIA official who manages these trust funds once told a group of Native Americans gathered in Washington that not only was some of their documentation damaged or contaminated with asbestos, but that at one site "some of the records were paved over and are now under a parking lot."

Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., a longtime critic of BIA, believes he can account for the apathy. "It's out of sight, out of mind. It doesn't touch that many people in the mainstream public. But for the hundreds of thousands it does touch, it has a tremendous impact," Synar told our associate Andrew Conte. "The BIA has no intention . . . of coming in to solve this problem. Because they know that they've been able to survive 40 years even though they've mismanaged it."

Originally a division of the War Department, the bureau is now under the Department of Interior. Judging by its management practices, it might as well be back in the 1820s, when the government first began holding tribal lands in trust.

"The derangements in the fiscal affairs of the Indian department are in the extreme. One would think that appropriations had been handled with a pitchfork," were the words of BIA employee H.R. Schoolcraft in 1828, the first in a long line of BIA whistle-blowers.

Meanwhile, Native Americans suffer abject poverty. Cobell sums it up this way: "First they took our blood, then they took our land, and now they've got our money."