Federal Coverup of $2.4 Billion Bungle

Published March 1, 2000

If Members of Congress want to know what to expect from approving the Clinton-Gore plan to increase federal oversight of public education, they need look no further than the federal government’s record on educating American Indians for the past 100 years.

Under the management of the Great White Father, schools for American Indians have the highest dropout rates, the lowest achievement scores, and the worst-maintained school buildings in the nation.

That’s not all. When Native Americans brought a class-action suit against the federal government in 1996 for its mismanagement of billions of dollars in tribal trust funds, the federal agencies involved recently were discovered deliberately destroying evidence that they had bungled the payout of those funds. Not only did government officials destroy 162 boxes of records, but government lawyers lied about it, according to an angry judge involved in the case.

A History of Broken Promises

The present troubles date back to 1887, when Congress passed the Dawes Act, aimed at assimilating American Indians into mainstream society and opening up reservation land to non-Indian farmers. The Act distributed reservation land to individual tribal members in parcels of 40 to 160 acres, but the Indians lost some 90 million acres that was sold to non-Indians.

Under the Dawes Act, the federal government also assumed responsibility for managing the hundreds of thousands of individual trust accounts that received income from the government’s leasing of tribally owned and individually owned Indian lands for grazing and oil exploration.

In exchange for the reservation land they acquired, the federal government signed treaties pledging to educate Indian children. This makes Indian education dependent on government officials in Washington, DC, rather than local or state officials. According to Chicago Tribune reporter V. Dion Hayes, Congress has shown little interest in providing adequate funding for reservation schools or in allocating the more than $1 billion needed for their repair.

“Native American schools are not a priority” with Congress, Hayes was told by John Hermann, assistant professor of political science at Trinity University in San Antonio.

With crumbling school buildings, high dropout rates, and low test scores, many Indians are beginning to question whether the United States has reneged on yet another treaty obligation to them. An official with the Bureau of Indian Affairs noted to Hayes that “politicians would never subject their own children” to the kind of conditions they subject Indian children to every day.

The federal government’s record of handling the tribal trust accounts hasn’t been exemplary, either. Last year, the judge in the class-action case, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lambert, fined the Clinton administration $625,000 and cited Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin for contempt of court. An outside audit found the government couldn’t account for $2.4 billion in fund transactions.

But when Lambert ordered the government to hand over the fund records to the Indian plaintiffs, he learned Interior Department officials had shredded 162 boxes of evidence in the case. The shredding was ordered on the very same day that Treasury and Justice Department officials appeared before Lambert to assure the court they were taking steps to preserve all relevant documents. An angry Lambert accused Treasury Department lawyers of lying to him about the trust fund records.