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Cobell Land Buyback Just a Dangling Carrot

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When my health condition pushed me into taking time off to obtain care, a long-time BIA friend offered good luck in my future. She stated that one thing she liked about me was I “…wasn’t afraid to speak my opinion even if it was different than everyone else.” I never made statements or expressed my opinion without first researching and vetting what I thought would ensure that I could support my opinion.

I have been a critic of the Cobell settlement (“Settlement”). A review of my articles posted in various columns plainly conveys my thoughts about the historical case involving past Indian claims against the United States Government for mismanagement of Indian trust lands and minerals. The Settlement provided a small victory to Indian trust land owners in the sense that the U.S. didn’t admit they didn’t collect and distribute Indian trust monies, but is unable to accurately account for the trust funds. That’s saying “I didn’t do anything wrong, but I can’t prove it.”

Well, now we are finally in the midst of the Cobell Land Buy Back Program (“LBBP”) implementation, I’m wondering “did anything really happen? Cobell settled for $3.4 billion, including stipends for the lead plaintiffs, $1.9 billion for the LBBP to be used by tribes to acquire “highly fractionated interests” in individual Indian lands, attorney and consultant costs capped at $100 million, and $1.4 billion to Individual Indian Monies account owners. Wow, $3.4 billion was awarded and a maximum of $1.4 billion to be distributed to the class members and now turning into a question of when will it actually happen. Individual Indians are having carrots dangled in front of them only to have it jerked back and rescheduled.

It sounds like a crazy concept that a class action agreement awards a settlement payment only to have a portion of the funds given to another entity to “buy away” their problem using their money award. Is anyone really that gullible? This has been going on for years and continues. But, you need to know that in the background, nothing really changes. You can put a suit on a puppet, but it’s still a puppet. Take for example the following.

The Fort Peck Tribal Land Committee Chairman expressed his concern that the Office of the Special Trustee’s Fiduciary (“OST”) Trust Officer (“FTO”) got his land sale approved so fast and brings up a question of conflict of interest.

Another Tribal Councilman said it takes three months to a year to get an appraisal. He felt that there was an appearance of “cronyism.” The Office of Appraisal Services is under the Supervision of OST. Comments centered on unemployed people trying to sell their land who have to wait.

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The Chairman said from the time the FTO put in for a land sale, it took two weeks to get an approved appraisal, while some wait up to nine months. He said the land is a good buy, but he’s against this due to the FTO being a federal employee who should be held to the highest standards. (See more)

I’m positive there has been or will be many other countless instances about how the LBBP was administered. The LBBP was intended to consolidate land with highly fractionated interests, but there are always friends and family who are able to circumvent the process with connections to those in the decision-making arena.

Another issue I have trouble with is the exploitation of the Settlement on the speaking circuit by those who are selling the idea that they did something wonderful for Indian Country. If the Settlement was so good for Indian Country, why did the Indians receive a pittance of the award settlement and everyone else is slicing off their piece of pie? There are several national conferences which are charging participants to hear “key” participants, or experts, in the Settlement explain to you the good and bad of the case. Sounds to me like their arguments should have been addressed in the court of competent jurisdiction rather than in the court of public opinion.

And finally, on July 8, 2014, the Department of the Interior issued a press release touting their transferring of $2.9 million to the Cobell Education Scholarship Fund (“CESF”) to be administered by the American Indian College Fund. This CESF is based on a formula tied to how much Indian land is acquired by the LBBP. Isn’t the U.S. Government already required to fund the Indian scholarship fund to tribes? This diversion may reduce the already and rapidly declining scholarship funding. CESF isn’t being funded by the Settlement fund but rather DOI contributions. It merely acts as a carrot in front of Indians to think that it will increase annual distributions of scholarship.

Anyway, to answer my own question, nothing really happened.

Jay Daniels has 30 years of experience working in Indian country, managing trust lands and is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. You can find resources and information at