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Historical Timeline

of Indian Trust Funds Management


The United States Congress enacts the General Allotment Act that institutes a policy to divide tribal lands among the tribes individual members in 40, 80, 160 and 320 acre parcels. Allotted land is held in trust by the United States government.



Joint Commission of US Congress releases the Report on the Business and Accounting Methods employed in the Administration of the Office of Indian Affairs citing, “…due to the increasing value of his remaining estate, there is left an inducement to fraud, corruption, and institutional incompetence almost beyond the possibility of comprehension”.



The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) stops further allotment and makes individual Indian trusts perpetual.



The House Committee on Government Operations issues a Report entitled “Misplaced Trust: The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Mismanagement of the Indian Trust Fund,” documenting the mismanagement of Indian trust assets.


Congress enacts the Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994


June 10, 1996

Native American Rights Fund (NARF) along with lead plaintiff, Elouise Cobell files the largest class action suit ever filed against the federal government charging that the Departments of Interior and Treasury breached their fiduciary duties to prudently manage the Indian trust funds and refused to fix an accounting system that is fundamentally flawed and ineffective.


November 1996

US District Judge Royce C. Lamberth signs an order requiring the government to produce all records and documents pertaining to the individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts of five named plaintiffs in the class.


March 1997

The government certifies to the Court that it has produced all such documents for the five named plaintiffs.


May 1998

Almost two years after the suit was filed, the Court again orders the government to produce relevant documents and records for the five named plaintiffs.


November 1998

Department of Treasury’s Financial Management Service destroys 162 boxes of documents.



December 1998

Judge Lamberth issues an order to show cause why Interior Secretary Babbitt, Treasury Secretary Rubin and Assistant Interior Secretary Gover should not be held in contempt of court for failure to produce the documents for the five named plaintiffs.


February 1999

Judge Lamberth rules that Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, and Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, are in civil contempt of court for their failure to produce court- ordered records.


June 1999

The first phase trial begins. It focuses on fixing the trust fund system. Secretary Babbitt admits that the “fiduciary responsibilities” of the US are “not being fulfilled.”


August 1999

Judge Lamberth orders Interior and Treasury to pay $600,000 in penalties for their long delay in reporting the destroyed documents.


October 1999

Judge Lamberth appoints a mediator in an attempt to settle the case.


December 1999

Judge Lamberth issues a 126-page opinion ruling that the “United States has breached its trust duties to individual Indian trust fund beneficiaries and has unreasonably delayed trust reform efforts.” The Court ordered continued judicial oversight for a period of at least five years.


January  2000

The government appeals Judge Lamberth’s order.


November 2000

Treasury discloses that it has destroyed more Indian trust documents.


February 2001

The US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit affirms that the federal government has a legally enforceable duty to properly manage and account for Indian trust assets.


March 2001

The Treasury Department reports Indian trust document destruction by at least 16 Federal Reserve banks and branches.


April 2001 

The Special Master Alan Balaran orders a senior Treasury official to give specific, written approval before any trust documents are destroyed by Federal Reserve banks and branches, and to inform the Special Master and the plaintiffs immediately of any such approvals.


June 2001

The Senate Government Affairs Committee cites Interior’s “abusing the trust of American Indians” as No. 2 in the Government’s Top 10 Worst Examples of Mismanagement. The betrayal of trust includes:

1. Untold billions in income from the use of Indian-owned land, held in trust by the U.S. but “lost” by the Interior and Treasury Departments.
2. $31 million in federal litigation costs.
3. $625,000 in fines paid by the US government for contempt-of-court citations in 1999.


June-September 2001

Computer experts, approved by the court and hired by Special Master Alan Balaran, hack into the computer system that maintains IIM trust records.


November 2001

Special Master Alan Balaran delivers his report documenting “deplorable and inexcusable” computer security lapses.


November 2001

Judge Lamberth orders Secretary Norton and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs McCaleb to stand trial for contempt.


December 2001

Judge Lamberth orders the Department of Interior to disconnect its Indian trust related Internet systems because they lack security safeguards. Seventy-one thousand employees in Interior’s 14 bureaus are disconnected from the Internet and trust payment for more than 43,000 Native landowners are stopped.


December 2001

Contempt trial begins for Secretary Norton and Assistant Secretary McCaleb.


March 2002

Plaintiffs in the class action suit file a motion to hold Interior Secretary Norton in contempt for allowing the destruction of IIM electronic documents as a cover-up.


September 2002 

Judge Lamberth issues a decision holding Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb in contempt of court on 4 of 5 counts. 


July 2003    

Court of Appeals affirms Judge Lamberth's contempt ruling.


April 2004

Department of the Interior and Native American plaintiffs enter into mediation.


June 2005

Cobell and Echohawk hold press conference about settlement figures.


July 2005

SR 1439 bill introduced, Senate Hearing about Settlement bill, Judge Lamberth issues harsh opinion.


November 2005

Appellate Court affirms the Department of the Interior does not have to complete an historical accounting.


July 2006 

Judge Lamberth removed from the Cobell case.


August 2006

Meetings in Navajo Country about the McCain/Dorgan Settlement bill.


December 2006

Judge James Robertson appointed to Cobell case.


August 2008

Judge Robertson awards the plaintiffs $455 million 


October 2008

Plaintiffs and the government  both appeal the Judge's ruling.


January 2009

President Obama is elected.  Settlement talks begin in June. 


December 2009

President Obama announces the $3.4 billion settlement of the Cobell lawsuit. 


November 2010

Congress approves the Cobell Settlement. 


June 2011

The Federal Court approves the Cobell Settlment. 


October 16, 2011

Elouise Pepion Cobell passes on from her battle with cancer. 


December 2012

The first round of settlement checks are mailed to 300,000 Indian Trust beneficiaries.

December 2014

The second and final round of settlement checks are mailed to 300,000 Indian Trust beneficiaries.



Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Why wasn’t this suit filed before 1996?  Why not earlier or later?


A. For years the federal government has acknowledged the need for comprehensive reform of its Indian trust fund management system. Administration after administration has promised to fix the system, but failed to keep those promises.  Congress recommended Indian trust fund management reform as early as the 1960’s, and beginning in the mid-1980’s, issued a series of explicit directives to that effect. Fed up with the Interior Department’s continued disregard for these repeated recommendations and directives, Congress passed the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act in 1994.  The Act reaffirmed the government’s duty to account for Indian trust funds, and appointed a Special Trustee to oversee comprehensive reform of the trust management system. Even after the Act was passed, however, the government made little or no effort to commence systematic reform and to account for its management of individual Indian trust funds.This lawsuit was brought because it was abundantly clear by June 1996 that the system would remain broken unless the government was forced to fix it, and that individual Indians would never be provided with an accounting unless a Federal Judge ordered it.


Q. If the federal government has mismanaged the trust funds, why have individual Indian beneficiaries never heard about the mismanagement before this suit?


A. Despite decades of mismanagement, the government has never informed its individual Indian trust beneficiaries that their Individual Indian Money (IIM) account balances were unreliable. Indian account holders have never received an account statement. During a six week trial beginning in June 1999, Interior Secretary Babbitt admitted that this information had been intentionally withheld in order to reduce the risk of lawsuits. 


Q.Where does the money managed by the United States come from? 


A. Individual Indian Money trust fund income is derived from individual Indian allotments. Companies lease the land from the government who manages the leasing of Indian property. Indian beneficiaries are not informed about who is leasing their land. In many instances, such allotments produce income from farming and grazing leases, timber sales, or oil and gas production.


Q.Who is currently holding these trust funds?


A.The funds are held in trust by the federal government, specifically by   the U.S. Department of Treasury.  The funds are pooled into a single account and invested until such time as they are disbursed to the   rightful Indian beneficiary.


Q.How much money are we talking about?


A. The federal government currently holds over $500 million in approximately 500,000 separate Individual Indian Money accounts. Additionally, more than $400 million flows through these accounts each year. Because the government has failed for over one hundred years to account for Indian trust funds, it remains at this point impossible to estimate with any accuracy the amount by which any particular IIM account has been misstated.  However, to give some perspective, we can look to similar mismanagement of tribal trust accounts. A report prepared by the Arthur Andersen accounting firm following a limited effort to reconcile the tribal accounts revealed that $2.4 billion could not be accounted for just for the nineteen year period from 1973 through 1992. 


Q. Does this lawsuit seek to eliminate the government’s role in trust management?


A. No.  This lawsuit seeks to compel the government to carry out its fiduciary duties to individual Indian trust beneficiaries in accordance with the law, including the most fundamental duty of every trustee---the duty to account.

To Learn more about the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the oldest and largest nonprofit law firm dedicated to asserting and defending the rights of Indian tribes, organizations and individuals nationwide



For the Latest information about the Cobell v. lawsuit against the US government



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