Money, guns and lawyers — Indian wars from Ouray to Obama

Vince Emmer

Vince Emmer
Staff Photo |


Today and Wednesday, columnist Vince Emmer, a financial consultant, takes a look at the accounting mess and long-running legal battle over the Individual Indian Trust Fund.

Ouray sighted his rifle on Hot Stuff, the Ute horseman approaching his camp south of Montrose. He knew the intruder was sent to kill him.

Chief Ouray was an unusual man; intelligent, multicultural, pragmatic, diplomatic — and quick to kill.

He was caught in a painful bind. The whites were invading Ute country. Ouray knew their power well. He had been to Washington three times, negotiating treaties for a shriveling Ute territory.

Ouray knew his people would be crushed like milled corn if they fought the white onslaught. The Utes who sent the assassin were angry with Ouray for counseling peace.

He squeezed the trigger. Hot Stuff fell, shot through the neck. The whites kept coming.

A final Ute defiance erupted near present day Meeker in 1879. Hard-headed social reformer Nathan Meeker was the legally imposed Indian agent on Ute land. He attempted to force the Utes to adopt white lifestyles. The Utes preferred to roam and race horses.

A fistfight caught fire, the cavalry overreacted, and 37 Utes and 25 whites died. A handful of Utes took three women hostage and fled. An aging Ouray brokered a deal that spared the Indians from the hangman’s rope.

However, Gov. Pitkin immediately pressed for nearly all of the remaining Ute land. They were exiled to two confined, sun-scorched patches of rock and ravines.

At a large Fort Laramie peace conference nearly 30 years earlier, the Sioux told the whites, “We were terrific warriors. We swept the enemy aside, and we took this land for ourselves.” By the late 1880s, the whites had completed another cycle of challenge, battle, conquest and possession.

Yet, the Indians were not entirely dispossessed. They retained ownership of 138 million acres nationwide, roughly twice the land of Colorado. Deeming them incompetent in business affairs, the federal government took control of the Native American property as trustee, to manage it for the benefit of the Indians.

That trusteeship was not ideal.

There were reports of corruption in the Indian Service from the beginning of its existence. Congress investigated in 1914. It reported, “there is an inducement to fraud, corruption and institutional incompetence almost beyond the possibility of comprehension.” The bureaucracy stonewalled reform.

Indian lands were sold and leased to railroads, timber companies, ranchers and miners. The Indians lived in misery. They depended on a preoccupied government for an intermittent supply of food, blankets and other sustenance. The U.S. sold off two-thirds of post-conquest Indian lands. Records were haphazard.

No one knows how much money the Indians received or how much the Indian agents pocketed, or the amount sent to the U.S. Treasury.

Fast forward to the 1960s. Eloise Cobell was growing up on a windy Blackfeet reservation without running water, electricity or telephone.

Her parents and other Indian families were unsure how the Bureau of Indian Affairs calculated their trust fund checks. Some families’ checks were for only a few cents. The Indians were not even told which parcel of land was theirs. Sometimes the checks stopped altogether, with no clarification.

At age 18, Eloise asked for an explanation at the local BIA office. She was told she was not capable of understanding.

“If someone tells me something can’t be done, I get so mad I just have to do it,” she said. She went to business school and became an accountant.

After working in Seattle and Denver she returned to Montana to care for her mother who was battling cancer. After her mother’s death, she and her husband stayed. She became treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe. That perch gave her clear sightlines into BIA handling of trust fund money.

Self-admitted to being “a bit hyper,” when the local bank shut down, she opened a new one. In time, she grew it into a wholesale bank for Native Americans nationally. Meanwhile, she kept asking why.

The BIA’s difficulties managing the Individual Indian Trust Fund were well-known. According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), “in May 1991 the BIA undertook, for the first time ever, an effort to reconcile the Individual Indian Trust fund account.”

Less than a year later, BIA abandoned the effort. It was too much work. GAO reports that the BIA found “reconciliation was not feasible due to the lack of supporting documentation and the level of effort and associated cost …”

By 1996, a frustrated Eloise Cobell took action. She filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 300,000 Indian plaintiffs against the United States of America. A century was too long to wait for an accounting. The BIA reacted by engaging 35 law firms and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on legal fees. Attorney Armen H. Merjian called it a legal scorched earth policy.

Nine years after the megasuit was launched, presiding judge Royce Lamberth wrote of the BIA’s actions, “The terrible power of government, and the frailty of the restraints on the exercise of that power, are never fully revealed until government turns against the people.”

Reach Vince Emmer, a financial consultant in Gypsum, at Coming Tuesday: The rebellion.

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