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Cautious times for Cobell

As Indian people, we have grown up hearing stories from our elders of lost land records and fumbled royalties. The idea that someday the government might be forced to account for those innumerable lost royalties seemed unimaginable.

As it turns out, that day may be close at hand.

A legal challenge to the federal government’s mishandling of hundreds of thousands of Indian land accounts has succeeded in forcing the government to account for its incompetence in handling Native people’s lands.

President Barack Obama announced Dec. 8 that his administration has proposed settling the Cobell v. Salazar class-action lawsuit for $1.4 billion. Another $2 billion would go into a fund set up to buy back Indian trust assets from individuals. The settlement also would set aside up to $60 million more to create a federal Indian Education Scholarship fund to provide higher education funding to Native youth.

As Indian people, we have grown up hearing stories from our elders of lost land records and fumbled royalties.

“As a candidate, I heard from many in Indian country that the Cobell suit remained a stain on the nation-to-nation relationship I value so much,” Obama said. “I pledged my commitment to resolving this issue, and I am proud that my administration has taken this step today.”

Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, praised the proposed settlement but expressed concern that the amount was significantly less than the Indian plaintiffs deserve. Lawyers for the plaintiffs have set the settlement figure at $47 billion.

“Today we have an administration that is listening to us,” Cobell said. “I am hopeful that these funds can lift a generation.”

It is hard to understate the significance of this proposed settlement, though it still must clear several hurdles before Indian beneficiaries start seeing checks in the mail. Congress must pass legislation approving the settlement, and the court overseeing the lawsuit then must endorse the settlement.

The settlement would affect more than 500,000 Individual Indian Money account holders, which include individuals who have land or resources being held in trust by the federal government, according to the plaintiffs.

If the settlement is approved, Indian plaintiffs each would receive a $1,000 check.

However, many questions remain about the settlement. The $2 billion land buy-back program is especially worrisome.

It is hard to understate the significance of this proposed settlement, though it still must clear several hurdles before Indian beneficiaries start seeing checks in the mail.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged that some individual plaintiffs would be skeptical about selling their interests to the federal government. He called the plan a “land consolidation program” aimed at offering individual Indians cash for their divided land interests and then transferring those interests back to tribes.

The government would set aside up to five percent of the value of those interests in a college and vocational scholarship fund for Native students.

What isn’t clear is exactly how the buy-back program would work and whether the government will succeed at assuaging the long-held distrust so many Native people feel for the government. Indeed, its terrible track record on managing Indian lands and resources is the reason for the Cobell lawsuit in the first place.

Still, the plan seems to hold some promise and hope for preserving Indian lands. While the $1,000 check sent to each class member would help to temporarily alleviate poverty among Native people, the buy-back program and scholarship fund could go further in improving tribes’ long-term welfare.

Now, it will be up to the federal government and tribes to finalize the settlement and get the money into the hands of Indian beneficiaries. Cobell admits this could be a long and arduous process that may not succeed.

If it does succeed, our elders will have a different story to tell, a story of courage that starts with a banker from Montana who blew the whistle on the government’s mismanagement of Indian trust accounts.