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An open letter to Indian country

There is an Indian proverb I’ve always liked: “Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents; it was loaned to you by your children.” Our connection to the land in Big Sky Country unites us. We all want the same thing: To leave Montana in as good or better shape than we found it for future generations. An essential part of this is doing what’s right and putting principles before politics.

For almost 15 years, one brave Montana woman named Elouise Cobell has fought for what was right, and she won. Ms. Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation living in Browning deserves many thanks for her persistence and determination. The groundbreaking Cobell v. Salazar class action lawsuit over mismanagement of Indian trust lands was settled in December of last year. It was great news as hope emerged over closing the chapter on a bitter legacy of broken promises. The parties agreed to settle the case for $3.4 billion: $1.4 billion to resolve historical accounting claims and damage claims, while $2 billion will be used to establish a Trust Land Consolidation Fund. Up to $60 million will be used to endow post-secondary Indian scholarships.

A week ago, I voted in favor of a plan to fund the settlement of this longstanding Indian trust lawsuit. The case forces the federal government to account for billions of dollars held in trust since 1887 for approximately 500,000 American Indians and their heirs. Through document discovery and courtroom testimony over the years, the lawsuit revealed mismanagement, dishonesty and delay by the Interior Department, leading U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth to declare the government’s conduct “fiscal and government irresponsibility in its purest form.”

For more than 100 years, the federal government did not fairly compensate Native Americans in Montana and across the nation for the revenue generated from their land. I was hired by my 900,000 bosses to fight for Montana values – values like fairness, common sense, and keeping your word. Political gridlock prevented the Senate from approving the Cobell settlement when it came up for a vote a week ago, but I intend to keep fighting until the federal government fully honors its trust obligation to Montana’s Native Americans.

As we wage the battle in the U.S. Senate to fund the Cobell settlement, we cannot forget the need to keep fighting for good paying jobs and investment in education in Indian country. I stand ready to work with the sovereign nations in Montana to provide tax incentives to inspire businesses to invest in Montana’s reservations. I’m working on a proposal to provide tax credit bonds for constructing and improving tribal schools. This September, I am summoning some of the world’s top business leaders and investors to Montana for our Economic Development Summit to create new ways of boosting state and tribal economies.

In the meantime, you can bet I will keep working with partners on all levels so Montana Indians see a long-deserved resolution to their grievances. The Senate had the opportunity to right a wrong here. I will not give up the fight to hold the U.S. government accountable.

– Sen. Max Baucus

D-Mont.