Interior unveils Indian record system

The Interior Department today unveiled a computer system that it hopes will improve the management of records associated with the Indian Trust Fund—a complicated amalgam of land records, bank accounts and other records that the department acknowledges has been poorly organized and maintained.

The Indian Trust Fund system, created in 1887, "was broken from the moment it was imposed on the Indian people," according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs news release.

The lease or sale of resources on nearly 54 million acres of land owned by American Indians and tribes constitutes the trust fund, which supports almost 350,000 individual accounts for American Indians and tribes. The department, which manages the accounts with a system put in place in 1977, estimates that the trust funds are worth about $3 billion.

Many American Indians have argued, however, that the system is so complex and shoddy that it failed to deliver to them the money they were owed through leasing.

The system, which has been the subject of numerous congressional hearings, granted individual American Indians plots of land and was supposed to establish a way to pay Indian landowners when their properties were leased.

The new system, called the Trust Assets Accounting Management System, will give the Bureau of Indian Affairs the ability to keep accurate land records, distribute trust income, send notices to landholders about the leasing of their property, automatically certify the title status of land parcels and perform other functions, according to a department news release.

The $160 million system, unveiled in Billings, Mont., by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, now will undergo a 60-day series of tests. The bureau hopes to start implementing the system at the conclusion of the testing period.

"This is the first step toward a trust management system that works for the tribes and for the individuals across Indian country," Babbitt said in the news release.

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