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Time to Help Families Still Waiting for Cobell Second Round

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It has been a year and a half since the federal courts finally gave the go ahead to the Garden City Group to distribute the $3.4 billion Cobell Settlement to American Indian and Alaska Natives who were wronged by the United States failure to live up to its trust responsibility. So far, 293,000 Indians across the country, many of who are members of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation, have received $1,000 checks from the Garden City Group because they are members of the Historical Accounting Class, one of two classes the United States has agreed to compensate.

Yet, the payment of the much larger sum of money owed to members of the Trust Administration Class has dragged on for well over a year. This is no longer acceptable. The reality is that Indian families, whether in North Dakota, Oklahoma, or elsewhere, have desperately struggled to make it through what is one of the worst winters in memory. Even $800 would make a huge difference in the lives of our tribal members and, sometimes, it could mean the difference between a heated or frozen home.

Thus, I am proposing that the two parties involved – the Cobell Class Counsel and the United States – ask the District Court to approve an amendment to the Settlement Agreement to allow the Garden City Group to immediately start sending out a minimum payment to members of the Trust Administration Class. I understand that sometimes there are understandable, and even unavoidable, delays in a settlement this large. But this delay is now unquestionably hurting the health and wellbeing of families in Indian Country. It is time for leadership and a solution.

The Settlement Agreement already mandates a minimum payment of $500 to each member of the Trust Administration Class, but with adjustments that sum is expected to rise to $800. I can’t think of a good reason why the parties should not change the Settlement Agreement to allow the Garden City Group to at least start sending out $800 checks to known members of the Trust Administration Class this spring. Even though there are several thousand appeals remaining, the vast majority of the Trust Administration Class members have already been identified. Those $800 payments would have an immediate impact in Indian Country. Or they could be $1,000 payments, or even fifty percent of the estimated amount to be paid out with the remainder to be paid out later. Either way, I think it’s hard to miss the point that one of the reasons that Eloise Cobell brought her case was to put an end to harmful financial decision-making by the federal government. And yet, here we are.

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Class Counsel has advised the public that it will take some time to resolve the final size and identity of the second Class. I have no doubt about that. A preliminary distribution of $800 or $1,000 in the next month will in no way prevent the Garden City Group from later equitably distributing the remainder of the funds in the Accounting/Trust Administration Fund to all Class members. But at least in the meantime, the families out in Indian County who are hurting the most can get some relief. As Chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, I represent one of the poorest regions in the country but also one of the biggest in terms of Individual Indian Money Account beneficiaries. This new approach would have a big impact and provide those beneficiaries with their own money. Let me repeat that final point: we’re not talking about the Government’s money, we’re talking about the beneficiaries’ money. It’s time to start coming up with a creative solution to this problem and this is a good place to start.

Tex “Red Tipped Arrow” Hall is the chairman, of Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation; and chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association.