Forgotten People take trust battle to DC

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

WINDOW ROCK, August 15, 2013

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A fter waiting three years for the Window Rock District Court to rule on its request for a full accounting of Bennett Freeze trust funds, the Forgotten People have taken their battle to Washington, D.C.

The attorney for the Forgotten People Inc., an organization of residents in the former Bennett Freeze, recently wrote two letters to Michele Singer, principal deputy to the U.S. Interior Department's special trustee for American Indians, asking her to "promptly deal with mismanagement and possible waste of federal trust monies, require a full accounting of monies received by the Navajo Nation and restitution as may be appropriate and require the Navajo Nation to comply with the specific terms of the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 and the specific statutory terms of the Navajo Rehabilitation Trust Fund."

The fund contains money specifically set aside to rehabilitate the Bennett Freeze area after the freeze was lifted in 2006, but James W. Zion, the Forgotten People's attorney, argues that the funds instead appear to have been spent on land purchased for the Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort and ranchland near Winslow and in New Mexico, and no funds have yet been used for the intended purpose.

Zion further argues that the tribe has never created a management plan for the funds, as indicated in federal regulations, and that "trust monies are being spent by the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission, a Navajo Nation public body without statutory authority to expend monies."

Navajo-Hopi Land Commission Office Director Raymond Maxx did not return a telephone call by press time.

The Forgotten People originally filed the lawsuit demanding an accounting of the trust funds in August 2010. Settlement negotiations were held in 2011 but failed to produce a resolution.

The suit was held up in 2012 when plaintiff Don Yellowman fired Zion as his attorney, but Zion continued to represent some of the other plaintiffs and the Forgotten People Inc.

The judge who had been hearing the case retired in May 2012, "and the suit is left hanging," according to a written statement from Zion.

"It's frustrating," Zion said in a telephone interview this week. "We've done everything including writing an order that the court would just have to sign, and we can't seem to make any progress."

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