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Ben Chrisman, Associated Press
Mary Johnson and brother Kee Jones of Montezuma Creek, San Juan County, stand near oil pipelines that cross land they own with three other siblings.

MONTEZUMA CREEK, San Juan County — Against the soft blue sky, oil wells steadily pull the black riches from Mary Johnson's land. She can hear the oil running through the brown pipes that crisscross through hills and valleys like twisted licorice.

It wasn't so long ago that Johnson, 78, a member of the vast Navajo Nation, believed all this production meant dollars for her. The federal government managed her royalties for her, sending statements and checks — sometimes for $3,000, sometimes $200.

But the checks never seemed to come regularly, even though the wells kept pumping, the oil kept flowing. Johnson still lived in a tiny, pale yellow house with no running water, a propane stove and just one bedroom.

It didn't seem right.

Across the country, but mostly in the West, many other Indians claim they, too, haven't been paid properly for oil and gas production from their land. A class-action lawsuit representing a half-million Indian landowners accuses the Interior Department of mismanagement dating back to 1887.

The government admits it could have done a better job and is now revamping the system. But many Indians are skeptical the problem will ever be resolved.

As oil pumped from her land, Johnson drew her arms tight around her waist in the brisk afternoon breeze and asked, "Why do I have to suffer so much?"

Decades of disarray

When the government took the land from Indians and forced them onto reservations in the 1800s, the reservations were divided into sections, or allotments. Those allotments can be leased by oil, gas and timber companies, who pay the federal government for that privilege. The government, in turn, holds the money in trust accounts for the Indians.

But the trust accounts have been in disarray for decades. Records have not been kept up. Required appraisals on property leases have not always been done.

AP graphicDNews graphicPoverty amid a wealth of resourcesRequires Adobe Acrobat.

In 1996, Blackfeet banker Elouise Cobell, determined to find out why the system was so inefficient, filed the class-action lawsuit against the Interior Department. The plaintiffs claim they are owed as much as $137 billion.

But unless a historical accounting is done, there is no way of knowing if every Indian — or any Indian — received what was due.

In the 1950s, oil was discovered here in remote Montezuma Creek and nearby Aneth, two communities that are part of the Navajo Nation — one of the most mineral-rich tribes in the country. The reservation covers 18 million acres through Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

With more than 180,000 members, it is the country's largest Indian tribe but also one of the poorest. More than 40 percent of its people live in poverty. The median household income is just $20,000, less than half the national median.

'Hopeless feeling'

Johnson has lived here in Montezuma Creek her entire life. A petite woman whose deep wrinkles make her look perpetually tired, she speaks only Navajo.

A few dusty roads off the main highway, the one-room, stone house where she grew up still stands about a mile and a half away from her home today. Oil pipelines run across land she owns with five siblings.

Johnson gestures to her mother's grave in the distance. She remembers the day a company drilling for oil hit her mother's casket.

The oil and gas lease for her property was signed in 1953, and Johnson and her family trusted the Bureau of Indian Affairs to pay them for the production on their land. Like many Indians, Johnson has no other income.

Sometimes, the checks would be for just pennies. Her November check was for $5.30. Once, she was so fed up with her sporadic checks that she marched out to an oil well and turned it off.

Over the years, Johnson and her five siblings have received about $50,000 each. But they believe they are due much more, perhaps as much as $1 million apiece.

"It's difficult for people like Mary to look out their window and see this kind of production, and they go to the post office and see nothing in payments coming to them," said Kevin Gambrell, former director of the Federal Indian Minerals Office in Farmington, N.M. "It gives them a real hopeless feeling."

But whether Johnson is really due more money is virtually impossible to know because a century of records are incomplete.

'Putting it off'

As trustee, the BIA is supposed to send out regular statements telling allottees exactly how much oil is being produced from their land and how much money is in their account. The government is also supposed to appraise Indian lands to make sure they get fair market value for leases, such as rights of way for pipelines.

Gambrell noticed that wasn't always done. As director of the FIMO office, it was his job to make sure Navajo allottees were paid for their oil and gas leases. He was appointed to the job just months after the Cobell lawsuit was filed in 1996.

He suspected Navajos were not being paid properly and reported it to the Interior Department. But, he said, nothing was ever done.

Last year, court-appointed investigator Alan Balaran found that companies paid private landowners near the Navajo reservation nearly 20 times what Navajos got for the right to build pipelines across their land. The government is challenging some of Balaran's findings.

Gambrell was fired last September because, he believes, he asked too many questions. He said the Interior Department told him it was because he destroyed records. The department would not comment on the case. Gambrell said he and the department have reached a confidential settlement.

"The Department of Interior," Gambrell said, "instead of fixing the system, they just keep putting it off and putting it off."

Paperwork nightmare

The lawsuit calls for a historical accounting, and the government believes it has the records to do that.

"The challenge is putting those records into usable form," said Ross Swimmer, the Interior Department's special trustee for American Indians.

Robert Anderson, director of the University of Washington's Native American Law Center, said there is no way the government could ever do that type of accounting, but the government won't admit that.

"They never had an adequate record-keeping system in place," Anderson said. "I think they thought it was going to go away, so they didn't pay any attention to it."

Both sides agree $13 billion has passed through the system, but Keith Harper, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the government needs to prove how much of that reached the Indians.

"These people, they should be millionaires," he said, "and they're living in abject poverty. . . , cycles of poverty created because of the mismanagement."

Swimmer, a former chief of the Cherokee Nation, said reviewing all the accounts would cost more than $6 billion — and Congress has been unwilling to allocate the needed money. In many instances, the system is a paperwork nightmare: 19,000 accounts have less than a dollar in them, and in one case, 2,500 Indians are fractional owners of one parcel of land.

Many of the Interior Department's Internet connections have been shut down twice since December 2001 to keep hackers from reaching the trust money. That led to a disruption of checks in the dead of winter.

Swimmer said all Indians who are supposed to be receiving checks are now getting their money.

Changing the system

Interior Secretary Gale Norton was held in contempt of court because U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said she lied about progress on the trust accounting and concealed gaping holes in computer security. That ruling was overturned on appeal.

Lamberth wanted the accounting done by 2007, but now Congress has passed a measure that prohibits the department from starting court-ordered accounting until 2005.

The Interior Department is reorganizing the entire trust system and asking Indians to review the proposal. Leases, accountability, the way money is collected and appraisals will all be done more efficiently, Swimmer said.

He admits it should have been done decades ago.

It's up to Ervin Chavez to keep the Navajos updated on the complicated case. He heads the Shii Shi Keyah Navajo Allottees Association. (Shii Shi Keyah means "this land, my land.")

Chavez meets with the allottees, often driving to their homes to tell them about court proceedings and translate for those who do not speak English. Often, he does not know what to tell them, especially when they ask why their checks are for so little.

Gambrell is trying to help Mary Johnson and her siblings find out why oil companies are continuing to pump on their land even though leases have not been renewed.

Interior secretaries have never been held accountable "for the damage they've done to the beneficiaries," Gambrell said. "Interior's gotten away with whatever they wanted to do."

Ripple effect

For Navajos, not getting the money they depend on has led to more severe problems.

"We are over capacity," said Gloria Champion, executive director of the Home for Women and Children Inc. in Shiprock, N.M., who believes frustration over missing checks has increased domestic violence on the reservation. Of the 225 women the shelter can house each year, Champion said about half are from families that receive money from oil and gas leases.

Many times, she said, Navajo women who are being abused have no where else to go.

"A lot of times they would go to the extended family, but the extended family is struggling, too. The elders aren't getting the money."

The Echo Inc. Food Bank in Farmington, N.M., serves about 1,000 Navajos each month, more when checks are overdue. Some allottees qualify for food assistance even when they are getting their royalty checks.

"We do see an increase when there's a big gap between when they get their check," said Vicki Metheny, food programs supervisor. "They're certainly up front about it."

Being used

Down a rough dirt road riddled with potholes near Bloomfield, N.M., Johnson Martinez emerges from his dilapidated white trailer and checks on his barking dogs. The 68-year-old Navajo lives in such a remote area that he often doesn't see another soul for months.

On this day, his pickup truck has broken down on the side of the road. He lives in this old trailer just yards from where gas pipelines sit on his family's land. He has no running water, no electricity and sometimes, no food. He builds a fire at night so he and his dogs can keep warm from the chill of the desert air.

Martinez said he has 48 cents to his name.

His only income is the money he gets from his gas leases. Three months ago, he got a check for $80. Once, he said, the check was for just 1 cent.

"They're using us," he said of the government. "They are starving us."