The Daily Times

More than $60 million is up for grabs.

In a kind of reverse treasure hunt, a branch of the United States Department of the Interior is trying to get rid of millions of dollars owed to American Indians who have failed to claim inheritance money or interest from tribal land allotments.

The Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians is looking for more than 45,000 beneficiaries nationwide, including about 4,000 Navajos, said John Roach, fiduciary trust officer for the OST. The lost beneficiaries, labeled as "whereabouts unknown," are eligible for disbursements ranging from a couple of pennies to more than $100,000, he said, with more than half owed $100 or more.

"It's unconscionable for us to have $50,000, $60,000 or $100,000 and not do everything in our power to find them (beneficiaries)," Roach said. "We have a very important but strict financial duty to them."

According to Julie Redhouse, accounting technician for the OST, there are two reasons a person's name may be on the list of beneficiaries whose whereabouts are unknown. The first reason is people who are in line to inherit money or estates from deceased family members either don't know of the inheritance or have moved and failed to update their mailing addresses with the OST, she said.

"When they inherit through a will but the address is wrong, the estate money comes back to us," she said. "We have the money, we want to give it to them, but we don't know where they are."

The office also owes money to descendants of the original trustees of tribal land attained through the General Allotment Act of 1887, Redhouse said. In the absence of a will, the act provided that upon death of the allottee, the ownership title would be divided among the heirs.

When heirs don't keep their records or mailing addresses updated, they miss out on quarterly pay-outs, Roach said. Heirs who share ownership with dozens or even hundreds of other beneficiaries may receive only a few cents every quarter, but those who have inherited a fraction of land leased for grazing or for the development of natural resources may be eligible for larger dividends.

A third reason the office owes money is when the beneficiary is a juvenile, Roach said. The OST holds onto accrued interest or inheritance until a beneficiary turns 18.

"Sometimes we lose track of them if they inherited land when they were juveniles," he said. "The sad thing is, when the land produces money, we can't find them."

All earnings and inheritances are reviewed and paid out by the OST, which also sends out a quarterly statement to land owners, listing all money, assets and real estate, Roach said. Even beneficiaries who are not owed money should receive statements reflecting realty and trust.

Because most beneficiaries on the "whereabouts unknown" list are unaware they have money or assets, the OST is asking all American Indians to check the list.

"If their name is on the list, it's on there for a reason," Roach said. "Either they own land, or we have money for them, or both."

For more information or for a list of beneficiaries whose whereabouts are unknown, call the Office of the Trustee for American Indians at (970) 563-1013, or the trust beneficiary call center at (888) 678-6936. A list is also available on-line at www.ost.doi.gov.

Alysa Landry: alandry@daily-times.com