Lawyer: Indian School Students Have Recourse
By Chet Brokaw
The Associated Press, carried in Rapid City Journal [Pierre SD]
November 17, 2004
PIERRE — Despite the dismissal of a federal lawsuit, former students who allege they were abused at Indian boarding schools will continue to pursue their legal claims against the federal government.
The recent court ruling means the former students must file an administrative claim directly with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Judge Diane Gilbert Sypolt of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims dismissed a lawsuit that alleged the federal government failed in its treaty duties to protect American Indian students who were sent to boarding schools run by religious organizations.
Sypolt said that before the issue can be considered in court, the former students first must seek an administrative remedy by filing a claim directly with U.S. Interior Department agencies.
Such an administrative claim allows the responsible agency to establish facts, apply its expertise to the issue and correct any of its own errors, the judge said. The administrative process could help avoid the necessity of a court fight, she said.
Jeffrey Herman of Miami, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said he will now file a claim directly with Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The dismissed lawsuit argued that federal officials failed to live up to the terms of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which required federal agencies to protect the Sioux from "bad men among the whites."
In their response to the lawsuit, federal officials agreed that Indians can enforce claims against the government under the "bad men" treaty provisions, Herman said.
"We continue to believe that the United States is responsible for the tremendous suffering caused at the Indian boarding schools and that the United States will eventually compensate the victims. The cases will move forward," Herman said in a written statement.
The federal lawsuit, which was filed in April 2003 by six members of Sioux tribes, sought $25 billion in damages from the federal government for the alleged mental, physical and sexual abuse of students at boarding schools.
The schools were run by religious organizations from the late 1800s or early 1900s until the 1970s, when most were closed or transferred to tribal control.
The class-action suit sought damages for all students allegedly abused at three schools that educated Sioux students in South Dakota: St. Paul's at Marty, St. Francis on Rosebud Reservation and Holy Rosary on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Lawyers also plan to seek damages for students who attended Indian boarding schools in other states.
Gary Frischer of Los Angeles, a legal consultant for the boarding school students, said the dismissed federal lawsuit ended up being good news, because the judge and federal officials recognized that Indians can seek compensation under treaty language requiring their protection from bad white people.
"We see it in some respects as very, very favorable," Frischer said of the judge's ruling.
Related lawsuits also have been filed in state court against the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City and the organizations that provided the priests and nuns who worked in the schools.
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