Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) is tired of hearing excuses about why it has taken so long for money from the $3.4 billion Cobell trust settlement to make it into the hands of Native Americans.
Yes, an initial payment of $1,000 went out to Indian class members December 2012; but since then Walsh says the Department of the Interior has been sluggish in helping get the second payment out by timely verifying those who are eligible. And Interior, he notes with added chagrin, has also received much tribal criticism regarding its slow progress in carrying out the $1.9 billion land buy-back component of the deal that’s supposed to reduce land fractionation on many reservations.
Walsh introduced legislation in May that’s intended to both speed up the second payment and strengthen the buy-back program, allowing more tribal control over it and placing the money in an interest-bearing account that would grow more money for Indian country.
In a recent interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Walsh expanded on his Cobell concerns:
Since you introduced your legislation, there has been some positive movement from Interior speeding up land buy-back offers to tribes. Are you disappointed that you had to introduce such legislation in the first place?
I am. The people believed that this settlement was moving forward. I’m disappointed in the administration’s actions to not carry out in good faith what was supposed to happen.
Who should be faulted?
The Department of the Interior.
Did you communicate with the Department before introducing your legislation?
No, I didn’t. You know one of the first trips that I took after I was sworn in [in February], Sen. [Jon] Tester [D-Mont.] and I traveled around visiting with the different tribes. These were issues that were brought up on numerous occasions. When we came back and talked about it, I felt we need to do something. So we introduced the legislation.
What were your Native constituents telling you?
First of all, they were concerned that this money was just sitting there. It isn’t drawing interest. And as it is right now, if the money isn’t allocated in 10 years, it will go back to the Department of Treasury. There is a lot of concern from Indian country that the timeline will not be met, and the money will be lost.
What’s your understanding of why the Department of the Interior has been taking longer than you would like on these matters?
They didn’t have a process in place to distribute the resources. That’s one of the things this bill does. There is already a process here. It just isn’t being used. It’s called the 638 contracting process. My bill would allow Interior to use the 638 process to distribute these funds. This process would give the tribes more buy-in and control, and then things would go much better and smoother.
Interior officials have said that the language in the original bill that authorized the settlement wouldn’t necessarily allow for increased tribal control, but several Congress members have written to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell noting that they believe the original bill would allow it.
I think that’s why my bill is needed—to clarify all this. This is about living up to our trust responsibility to American Indians.
You mentioned also wanting to put the money in an interest-bearing account in order to make more money for Indian country.
Yes, it’s another one of the points of the bill. It allows the trust land consolidation fund to be invested, producing interest on the fund. I would think Interior would be open to it.
You and Sen. Tester sent a letter to the Garden City Group in early June, and you told them that you were disappointed in the second payment delays and the lack of transparency. Any response from them?
Not really. They wavered. We talked to them, but we haven’t gotten anything formally back.
That must be disappointing.
It is disappointing. When the United States Congress asks for something from an agency or an entity involved with an implementation of a program, it is very frustrating not to get a response.
[After the interview, the senator's staff informed ICTMN that his office did hear back from the Garden City Group. "The Senator appreciates the response, but maintains that everyone – Interior and GCG – should be acting more quickly to get the payments out," said Andrea Helling, a spokeswoman for Walsh.]
The Cobell team lawyers and the overseeing court have recently said that second payments to individual class members should go out in the next three months. Do you believe it?
I remember reading a book a few years back by General Gordon Sullivan, “Hope is Not a Method.” We can’t hope that things happen. We have to make them happen. That’s why I’m introducing this legislation.
Why is more legislation needed when there was already legislation that approved the agreement way back in 2010?
I want to do everything I possibly can as a United States senator to make sure that the relationship between Indian country and the federal government is improved. I have made that commitment to tribal leaders. I don’t want them to come back and think I am not true to my word.
If the second payments go out and Interior ramps up the buy-back program quickly, will your legislation be necessary?
I believe it will. It is important to put this legislation into place until all the funds are distributed.
This is an admittedly complicated settlement that’s had many issues along the way, and the administration has listed it as one of President Obama’s legacy items. Do you think this is going to be seen in the light of history as a positive legacy for the President and his administration?
I think this is more about the legacy of Elouise Cobell. Without her continued persistence and vision and action, this would not have happened.
Why should Native Americans in your state vote for you this fall?
When I’ve told our Native Americans in Montana that I am going to do something, they can trust that I do what I tell them I am going to do. With my opponent [Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.)], that doesn’t always happen. His actions speak much louder than his words. Montana’s Native American population will see right through that. A perfect example is with the government shutdown and sequestration. Congressman Daines not only supported – he demanded – the government shutdown, and that has a very negative impact on Indian country. That impact is still being felt today. With sequestration, Congressman Daines continues to support those cuts, which have a negative impact on Indian country. He also says his number one priority is to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Well, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is a part of the Affordable Care Act. If we cut out the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, that is only going to make things worse from a health perspective for Indian country.
It sounds like getting out the Native vote is going to be very important to you.
Very important. Yes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.