At this point, federal malfeasance should hardly even faze Elouise Cobell.
In 1996, Cobell, a Browning resident and member of the Blackfeet tribe, filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking an accounting of billions of dollars generated by the lease of Indian lands since the late 19th century. The money was supposed to have been kept in a trust fund. Cobell alleges it’s been lost or stolen by the federal government.
Soon after the trial started, the federal government began making prodigious use of shredders and dumpsters as an alternative to storing documents critical to Cobell’s case.
Three years into the trial, the government was found to have destroyed 162 boxes of trust-related files. The Treasury and Interior Departments were eventually fined $600,000 by a judge in the trust case.
One year later, in 2000, the government admitted to destroying more trust-related documents, and then in 2001, it was found that 29 of 37 Federal Reserve banks had joined in the shred-a-thon.
Eventually, Bill Clinton’s interior and treasury secretaries, Bruce Babbit and Robert Rubin, respectively, were held in contempt of court for these and other actions allegedly designed to derail Cobell’s case.
But it appears the feds learned nothing from getting caught. On Sept. 13, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) announced that employees had discovered boxes of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) files that could be used to ascertain Indian landownership tossed in one of their dumpsters, and more files were found in trash cans. This despite a court order that no federal documents pertaining to the trust case be destroyed.
“It’s the same behavior,” Cobell says. “They try to find every way to get around the law.”
But, Cobell says, “It’s not going to help” the feds as they move into the second phase of the trial, when the actual amount owed the Indian trust will be determined, because the government will have to prove the plaintiff’s numbers wrong without documents to support their case. Normally, the plaintiffs would have had to prove their numbers to be correct. Cobell alleges that the government owes $137 billion to the trust fund.
“We are so right,” Cobell says. “It’s time to settle historical wrongs and move on.”