American Indians Pursue Lawsuit Against US Government


In 1887 the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes Act, which took much of the remaining land possessed by American Indians and divided it up into individual plots. The plots ranged in size from 40 to 160 acres. The idea was to force American Indians to become Western-style small farmers.

The effect, however, was devastating, and making the matter worse, the U.S. government ended up allotting a large amount of the de-collectivized land to mining, grazing, timber, and irrigation interests.

Ostensibly, the money made by the sale or lease of such lands was held “in trust” by the government and would be given back in the form of services and individual payments.

In 1996 a group of American Indians, along with the Native American Rights Fund and the Intertribal Monitoring Association, filed the largest class-action lawsuit in history involving the U.S. government. The suit is demanding restitution for $100 billion from American Indian trust funds that the government has either lost, paid to the wrong people, or simply withheld.

In the six years since the suit was first filed it has dragged on through the federal courts, with numerous government officials, including two consecutive Secretaries of the Interior, being found in contempt of court for blocking investigations and refusing to carry out reforms ordered by the courts.

The lawsuit has revealed an outrageous long history of corruption, arrogance, paternalism, ineptness, and downright theft by the government-in particular the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For example, it has been revealed that the BIA has paid out some $700 million in tribal funds to the wrong people! It has also come out that it has been paying money into the accounts of 21,000 people who are deceased, and is withholding $50 million owed to individual American Indians because it has no address for them on file.

And this is likely just the tip of the iceberg, considering the great lengths the government has been going to in order to cover up what it has been doing. In the course of the lawsuit so far, the BIA has been forced to admit that it has already illegally shredded numerous documents, and that relevant documentation on BIA financial transactions have been “comprised” at least 29 of the 37 Federal Reserve branches where such materials are stored.

American Indians are the most impoverished sector of this continent, and are a people who have had to endure one tragedy and injustice after another at the hands of the U.S. government. These recent shocking revelations of abuse of power and funds by the Bureau of Indian affairs is salt in wounds that are already very deep.

That a government agency would facilitate the loss of millions of acres of American Indian land to business interests, and then not even have the decency to make the promised payments from these transactions is outrageous. It highlights the desperate need that exists for meaningful reparations for American Indians, as well as for a genuine right to self-determination.

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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.