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Native Americans: Government breaking promises over land use trust fund
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A group of Native Americans is accusing the Department of the Interior of breaking promises the agency made after losing a class-action suit involving trust funds established in the 1880s.
Mining, grazing, oil drilling and other activities take place every day on land owned by some 285,000 Native Americans. Royalties from that use of the land goes into a trust fund managed by the Interior Department.
The U.S. district judge presiding over the class-action lawsuit last December found the department had so mishandled the resulting revenue -- $300 million a year -- that it was "possible that tens of thousands of beneficiaries should be receiving different amounts of money ... than they do."
Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the department to file quarterly reports during the next five years on its efforts to reform the program. The first report was due March 1.
"The dates which they promised things would be completed, are not going to be completed by those dates," said Keith Harper, an attorney representing the Native Americans. "The things that they said they would do, they're not going to do those things."
The Interior Department admits it has found a greater number of problems with poor record-keeping and backlogs than it had expected.
"We're going to have to climb more hills than we realized," said Kevin Gover, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian affairs. Gover said fixing the problems will require additional funding, more personnel and more time.
In 1887, Congress passed a law that divided reservations into parcels allotted to each Indian family, who were barred from leasing, selling or exploiting their land without federal approval.
"This is a beautiful example of federal paternalism -- the federal government assuming the tribes cannot take care of themselves," said William Leap of American University.
Lawyers for the Indians contend that while the government slowly sorts out the century-old problem, Native Americans are suffering.
Harper said some Native Americans are among the poorest people in the country, having difficulty paying for basic necessities such as heating oil in the winter.
While some Native American accounts are worth millions of dollars, the Interior Department says two-thirds of the accounts pay beneficiaries less than $25 a year.
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