Seventy feet beneath the prairie, the governmentt is filling limestone caverns – protected by guards and a bomb-snifffing dog – with truckloads of American Indian financial and cultural records.
The site, 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 do not think it can be done properly.
The Indians say the government mismanaged a trust in their names for 120 years and now 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 may be owed a century’s worth of grazing rents, oil and gas royalties and timber sales from the land, plus interest.
Both the Indians and the Interior Department agree $13 billion was collected between 1909 and 2001.
The Indians had claimed the unpaid interest could be more than $150 billion, but have offered to drop the whole thing if the government coughs up $27.5 billion. They would spread the money among individual Indian account-holders, about one-fifth of the 2.5 million now living in the United States, mainly in the West.
No way, the Bush administration replied, saying the government all along has forwarded most of the rents and royalties to tribes and individual Indians.
“It could be just $30 million that’s owed to the Indians,” said Ross Swimmer, the Interior Department’s special trustee for Indians. He also is a member of Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation.
In an irony befitting an “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” legal war, the government is relying on the Indian-demanded accounting – actuallly, it’s a statistical sampling – to come up with figures that Indiaans claim low-ball what they’re owed.
“It’s a number in the m’s, not the b’s,” said Fritz Scheuren, who oversees Interior’s statistical sampling. Scheuren was president of the American Statistical Association last year.
The Indian plaintiffs now 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, a lawyer for the Indians. “Massive hard copy and electronic destruction . make the acccounting legally and factually impossible.”
The Indians’ biggest ally is U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, a former Reagan administration official whose strongly worded rulings condemn the Interior Department.
After nine years presiding over the case, Lamberth concluded last July the agency is a “pathetic outpost” that has bungled its fiduciary duty.
Not surprisingly, the Interior Department wants Lamberth removed from the case and a different judge assigned.
Trucks headed into cave
Down the rabbit hole, tractor trailers disappear into an obscure grassy knoll just off the Prairie Star Parkway. The cave, in an industrial park a half hour southwest of Kansas City, offers few indications it houses a semi-secretive government facility.
In dimly lighted 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 79,451-seat Arrowhead Stadium, 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 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 itself in Washington, D.C., and an annex in College Park, Md.
Array of items
The boxes come from about 100 of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs offices and from National Archives record centers around the country. Some are tattered, faded or water-damaged. A few were decontaminated because of 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 on Dec. 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee, S.D.
Most people agree the only acceptable solution will come from Congress.
Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., oversaw a recent hearing to find the quickest and fairest way to end the dispute.
Experts urged them to study the legal arguments – then arbitrarrily pick a settlement figure. Even Interior’s Swimmer agrees with the concept of a big, somewhat arbitrary payout.
“Just pick a number,” he told the AP. “It’s reparations, not repayment.”
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