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Indian give and take

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With compounded interest included, the federal government owes individual Indian trust accounts about $137 billion, says Elouise Cobell. In 1996, Cobell filed a suit, commonly known as the Indian trust suit, on behalf of 500,000 Indians in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. She asked the government to account for the billions of dollars it had held in trust on behalf of Indians.

“This particular case makes Enron look like a shoplifting case,” says Cobell. Once again, the case is up for mediation. But contrary to the government’s spin, says Cobell, mediation is nothing new.

“I was surprised when Congress announced [mediation] as a historical break-through,” she says. “I think it misled a lot of people.”

In fact, she says, “We’ve been at the table before.” In 1999, government attempted to mediate, and things didn’t go well. “They tried to re-try the case in mediation,” Cobell says.

She is willing to come to the table again because if she doesn’t, Congress will interfere. In November, the House and the Senate passed a rider on the appropriations bill that would delay the accounting of missing funds for one year. The parties haven’t yet agreed on a mediator, but if the government approves of the mediator Cobell has in mind—she isn’t at liberty to reveal the name—she’ll take it as an indication that mediation might succeed. Simultaneously, however, the suit will continue to move through the courts.

After eight years fighting, Cobell is not fatigued. Along the way, the courts have ruled in her favor. She is fighting the good fight, she says, so she has the energy to continue: “We’re so right,” she says. “We shouldn’t even be having to fight this case. The government is wrong.”

She points to Martha Stewart’s conviction. Stewart lied, says Cobell, but “when the shoe is on the other foot,” she says—when the government is lying—it should also be accountable. “It’s time enough,” says Cobell, “that all of us as American people be involved in this change.”

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