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Restoring a Trust

Reconciliation is a word often heard today as countries try to adjust past wrongs. The US is not alone. Washington, in fact, is in the middle of righting one part of a massive wrong - the mistreatment, through the country's history, of native Americans.

The issue is the federal government's care of trust funds belonging to native Americans. Those funds have been badly managed for more than a century. They began, originally, as a means of taking the control of Indian assets out of Indian hands. The money currently flowing into them, some $300 million a year, is compensation for the use of Indian-owned land for mining, logging, or grazing.

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While poor record-keeping and imbalances in the funds have been known about for decades, significant action has been taken only in the last few years. The catalyst was a class-action lawsuit launched against the government by 300,000 trust-fund beneficiaries in 1996.

Earlier this year, the federal judge hearing the case held the secretaries of Interior and Treasury in contempt for not coming up with documents demanded by the court. In early December, the judge chided the Treasury for destroying, inadvertently it said, 162 boxes of records relevant to the case.

Finally, on Dec. 21, the frustrated judge ruled the government in violation of its duty to Indian account holders. The accounts were so botched, he said, that it was impossible to know who was owed what. The court, he said, would directly oversee the process of fixing the trust funds.

What's next is a process of putting the trust-fund accounts on the honest, businesslike basis they should always have had. Then the country can look itself a little more squarely in the face.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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