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American Indians deserve fair financial compensation

Back in the '50s when being politically correct meant that someone voted the same way you did, a much older colleague was regaling some of us about his heroic experiences many years before as a cavalryman with General John Pershing along the Mexican border.

There were, he said waving his arms dramatically, Indians to his right and left and front and back and yet he persevered, valiantly. For whatever reason, Indians were well represented in newspaper composing rooms in those days, particularly on metropolitan dailies. This one was no exception.

In the midst of my colleague's dissertation on the techniques of "Indian fighting," a very large linotype operator who was a member of the Sioux tribe appeared behind him with a question about a piece of copy he was about to set into type. Feeling an overpowering presence rather than seeing it, the story teller glanced over his shoulder and without hesitation earnestly proclaimed:

"As I was saying, boys, some of my best friends are Indians."

In truth, American Indians are in many ways this country's best friends. Now perhaps for the first time in a century, a large number of them are going to get a fair shake from a government that has too long denied them a simple accounting of what rightfully was theirs. A federal appeals panel has agreed with a lower court that U.S. officials have mismanaged and neglected Indian trust funds amounting to billions of dollars over the past 100 years.

Responding to a class action suit filed in behalf of these American Indians, the court stated that those in charge "have been unable to execute the most fundamental of trust duties — an accurate accounting."

"The federal government has substantial trust responsibilities toward Native Americans," the court said. "It is equally clear that the federal government has failed time and again to discharge its fiduciary duties."

The trusts were created in 1887 to compensate Indians for the use of their land and to provide them with royalties from the sale of oil and timber and other resources. The trusts are set up as individual accounts and are passed down through the generations, providing account holders with badly needed funds for every day living. Of the 2.2 million Native Americans, there are more than 300,000 account holders who would benefit from the court's action.

It is estimated that the fund grows by about $500 million in royalties each year. But the amount of mismanaged, unaccounted for money is in sharp dispute. The government admits to hundreds of millions while lawyers for the Indians peg the amount at a minimum of $10 billion. Given the government's previous action in this matter, the estimate by the plaintiffs is probably more reliable and certainly more credible.

The case has been churning on for about five years. The government's refusal to follow a congressional mandate for an accounting adopted six years ago and to continue to oppose it through the courts is disgraceful. In an age when the shameful historic mistreatment of America's indigenous people has become an accepted fact, Treasury and Interior officials continued to propound the wrong. So much for bureaucratic sensitivity. At one point in the proceedings, U. S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth held then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt of court for failing to produce records.

The appeals panel upheld Lamberth's ruling, ordering the government to revise the trust fund system and placing the process under five-year court supervision. Lamberth had expressed dismay over missing records and destroyed documents and the appeals court echoed this in upholding his decision.

Native Americans play a vital role in the preservation of our heritage, our culture, and our natural resources, overseeing vast areas of near wilderness and contributing to the prosperity of other Americans in a dozen ways. We aren't talking anything radical when we say they deserve proper compensation for permitting the exploitation of what is theirs. The only way they will receive it is through an accurate accounting of what is owed them.

There is a tendency to think of American Indians in terms of casinos with pea-patch sized reservations managed by wealthy entrepreneurs who are American Indians in name only. That's not what this is all about. Many of those holding the trust accounts live in squalor on reservations that produce little agriculture other than the raising of livestock. The desperation can be overwhelming and lead to life-shortening addictions. Visit Gallup, N. M., sometime.

It's time, as my long-gone colleague opined, for the government to begin to understand that "some of our best friends" truly are American Indians.