Cobell settlement clears House; on to president

WASHINGTON – The U.S. House of Representatives passed the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement Nov. 30. The deal now must be signed into law by President Barack Obama to enter a judicial phase of oversight.

The affirmative vote came by a large margin, 256-152. The main detractors were Republicans, although many GOP friends of Indian country ultimately agreed to the legislation.

The House vote followed a Senate vote Nov. 19 that approved the settlement as part of the Claims Settlement Act. The House had previously voted affirmatively twice this year.

Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet citizen who first filed the case in 1996, was overjoyed, especially given the ups and downs of the past year as the Senate stalled in granting approval after the resolution between the Indian plaintiffs and the Obama administration was first announced last December.

“This is truly an historic day in Indian country as well as in America’s history” Cobell said. “By Congress placing a seal of approval on this settlement, a monumental step has been taken to remove a stain on our national honor, and create a better future for Indians as our government begins to make some amends for grave past injustices.

Cobell called the congressional action “unprecedented” and said it “paves the way for a brighter and better relationship with government.”

“The passage of the Cobell settlement is a significant milestone in the history of American Indian relations with United States government,” said Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

Indian country is now waiting for Obama to sign the deal into law – something he will likely do in short order, given his repeated support.

After the House passage, Obama released a statement applauding “Congress for acting in a bipartisan fashion to bring this painful chapter in our nation’s history to a close.”

Upon Obama’s signature, a judicial process will begin, as the case will return to court for a hearing before D.C. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan “in accordance with federal court rules to confirm the fairness of the settlement, determine appropriate attorneys’ fees and to establish distribution of funds to the class members,” according to Cobell.

Lawyers’ fees have long been contentious in the proceedings, so observers will be watching closely to see what the court says on the matter. Under the terms, lawyers for the Indian plaintiffs could receive up to $100 million.

While the settlement is viewed as a victory by many in Indian country, some are still concerned that many plaintiffs will receive small amounts of money, less than $2,000 in many cases.

Cobell addressed that concern in her statement: “While the money is not as much as we believe we are entitled to, there was no end in sight to this litigation and the settlement will be recognized by Native people as an acknowledgment by the federal government that it wronged them by its mismanagement of Indian money and Indian lands.”

Even given the settlement, federal trust reform involving Indians will continue to be an issue, as a large chunk of the fund – $1.9 billion – is designated for a new Department of the Interior program to buy back fractionated lands – a process that could lead to more complications in ensuing years.

Interior officials have said the program will provide individual Indians with an opportunity to consolidate and transfer divided ownership interests to their tribal governments, where they will remain in trust for the benefit of tribal communities.

Individual Indians would receive cash payments for the transfers and, as an incentive, transfers would trigger government payments into a $60 million Indian scholarship fund.

Many in Indian country are hopeful that the Interior program will help reservation lands become more whole.

“Not only does Cobell settle historic injustices through legal means, it starts the U.S. government on a course for meeting its obligations and making reservation lands more productive for future generations,” Keel said.

“There is still much to be done in trust reform and improving trustee performance by the Department of Interior, but this huge step makes those other steps possible,” Cobell said.

Federal policy makers have indicated that the case and its settlement process have helped them create a better and stronger overall trust accounting system.

Several lawmakers and policy makers released statements supporting Congress’ approval.

“Today’s vote in the House to pass legislation to provide funding to settle African American farmers’ and Native Americans’ lawsuits against the federal government brings a much-delayed end to serious cases of discrimination,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Settlements were reached in both of these class action lawsuits, and now we have finally ensured the federal government will honor its commitments.”

“These settlements have been reached in court, and now it is our job to ensure that the federal government lives up to its end of the bargain,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md. “I’m glad that this bill funds the Pigford and Cobell settlements without adding to the deficit; and I’m also glad that this bill can bring to a close an unfortunate chapter in our history.”

“These are truly historic settlements that do not only resolve litigation, but also offer a new relationship between many deserving Americans and the federal agencies that play an important role in their lives,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “Bringing this litigation to a close has been a priority for this administration, and today’s vote in Congress is a significant, historic achievement. These cases provide fair deals for the plaintiffs and for the American taxpayers.”

“Congress’ approval of the Cobell settlement and the four Indian water rights settlements is nothing short of historic for Indian nations,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “The settlements honorably and responsibly address long-standing injustices and represent a major step forward in President Obama’s agenda to empower tribal governments, fulfill our trust responsibilities to tribal members and help tribal leaders build safer, stronger, healthier and more prosperous communities.”

“This legislation brings a fair and responsible resolution to the Cobell case and is a great bargain for American taxpayers,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., co-chairman of the Native American Caucus. “The Cobell settlement helps correct a historic wrong and ensures that Native Americans enjoy the full benefit of tribal lands and resources. The bill is fully paid for and will save taxpayers millions in additional costly litigation.”

“For over a century, the federal government mismanaged, lost, and even stole billions of dollars it held in trust for individual American Indians,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “Final congressional approval of the Cobell v. Salazar settlement is long overdue and historic. But it is much more than that. It is a victory for justice.”