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Why I Opted Out of the Cobell Settlement

Ten Cent Treaty, Le Pay, allotments in Montana, lease checks the neighbors received, Grandpa saying, "I am still waiting for my allotment." These are words I grew up with.

They were full of import and mystery, and stood for things eternal. I heard the grown ups say them, talk about what they stood for, speak of them as in the very distant past, in the future and very far away, but never as here and now.

The proposed Cobell settlement has brought allotments and lease money issues to the forefront. And, although the waiting is over, I could not stop myself from opting out of the settlement.

On one level, it doesn’t matter much because there is little money in my trust account, meaning my grandmother’s allotment was either not worth much or was leased for far below its value. Or possibly oil was drained and we were never told. How would we know? We never saw the land; the allotment is 300 miles from home.

Exactly what happened to her allotment is what the litigation called Cobell was supposed to determine, or so I thought. But, after 12 years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent I know little more now than I did before. My decision to opt out rests in good part on what I still don’t know. Besides, as my mother told me, if it doesn’t feel right in your gut, then don’t do it. This settlement just doesn’t feel right.

Growing up I heard stories that my grandmother had an allotment 300 miles away in Montana, which she went to live on for one harsh winter before returning to the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. Her family could not make a living there. Her allotment didn’t have a road to it. It was on the public domain and not near any other allotments. It was non-arable. And besides, it was lonely. Her home and family were in the Turtle Mountains. I also heard more than once that she did not get the allotment originally assigned to her. They said it was because minerals were found on it. So they gave her another, less obviously valuable selection. Apocryphal? I know only that these are the stories that went through the family and down through the generations and fell on my ears again and again. I believe them. They are our stories. In any event, now, a century later, these stories no longer matter. Or do they? Certainly, after Cobell, these stories will no longer hold the same meaning as they held for my grandparents, parents and me.

My interest is apparently small, worth about $500 according to the Cobell proposed settlement—possibly increasing to $800 as a result of moving $100 million from the land consolidation fund to the administration fund. But it’s not just about the money. Here’s why it matters to me.

All my life—since I was old enough to realize what a reservation is, what it means to me and my family, to all Indians—I felt cheated. In the BIA school I graduated from I felt cheated that there was not one book on Indians in our library. I asked, and the librarian led me to War and Peace. Yes, it’s true. Even then, I knew something was not right, but also felt shame and disappointment that we, Indians, were not important enough to have books about us in our school library. I felt cheated that we did not learn a single thing about being Indian, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, or the tribal government, whose offices stood next to the school. I felt cheated that we did not hear or speak the languages (Cree and Ojibwe) my mother knew exclusively until she was taken to boarding school at age 6, where she stayed through age 12 and where she was taught to unlearn being Indian. She remained fluent, but taught us very little. Why? Although I well know the answers, I still have to ask, because not to will let something important, and eternal, die.

I felt cheated that we did not have land—allotments. Only the older folks did, but most of them did not live on their lands because they were hundreds of miles away. They could only talk about it—and le pay, the 10¢ an acre pressed on the Tribe for giving up ten million acres of our homeland. This iniquitous compensation was the subject of an Indian Claims Commission case for unconscionable dealings that ended in a $52 million dollar judgment. Each of us, who were eligible, received less than $2,000 for our birthright. Those born after 1972? Kaput. Anisha. The two grand? It went … well, that is a tired old story, and everyone knows the ending.

Let’s just say, I felt cheated again as I held in my hand a small piece of paper with $1,800 and some odd change written on it next to my name. It was a sorry sight, a weightless exchange for the heaviness in my heart for all it represented—my homeland, my heritage, my birthright (things eternal), my future, and my children’s future. The piece of paper floated to the floor—before I picked it up, took it to the bank and cashed it. I had only enough to help my daughter buy a used car to get back and forth to college. I don’t remember the car. It probably got beat up on the rez roads and, like most things Indian, had a shorter life than it should have.

The Turtle Mountain Reservation was allotted (against the Tribe’s wishes), but there was not enough land on our small 6 by 12 mile reservation for everyone in our large tribe to have an allotment, so allotments were made on distant public lands for our tribe members to use as homelands and on which, with which, they were to make a life and a living for themselves. No apparent thought was given to whether the lands were suitable for their intended purpose, or even to how the Indians would get to their lands.

Allotments that were not habitable, or were too far away to be considered seriously as homelands, were leased and minerals sold by the federal government for "benefit" of the Indian owner. Leases were made without knowledge or permission of the Indian owners, without any information as to the resources being harvested, mined or grazed, without information as to who the lessees were or about the value or terms of the leases, and, as we know from Cobell, without any proper accounting for the money that went through trust accounts, or that should have gone through the accounts. (How can they account for the money from the allotment taken away from my grandmother and from the one my grandfather didn’t get?)

I feel cheated because my grandmother was cheated and her heirs were cheated and cowed by the very lack of information, by the lack of answers when questions were asked, cowed into believing we had little or no right to ask about our interest in her allotment. This is one of reasons I opted out: I still don’t know what resources are on the allotments (there are 3) that I have interests in. To say on quarterly statement, which have miraculously appeared in recent years, that the land is leased for “business purpose” or “agriculture” tells me very little. The point is, these leased lands are the source of the trust accounts that are the subject of Cobell and I still don’t know enough about the value of my interests to make an informed decision about whether to agree to settle.

I do know that I continue to feel cheated. My family has never benefited in any meaningful way from our allotments. Now some 110 years later, I have the offer of another paltry piece of paper with a few small numbers typed on it. What am I supposed to do with $500? What would you do? What would you do if you didn’t feel so powerless and like you deserved at least something, even if it is this silly amount called a "settlement"? My daughter pointed out the plain reality, "There are poor people who would gladly take $500, a month’s worth of fuel oil [in a cold North Dakota winter], or a couple of week’s groceries in exchange for a piece of land they will never see and have no money to ever see."

The fact is, the settlement will make no real difference in the lives of most account holders and can hardly be considered justice in any real sense of the word. It is just a way to put an ugly chapter in American history to rest for the perpetrators, while conveniently ignoring that it is largely a meaningless act for most Indians.

It is not a meaningless exercise, however, for those few who stand to reap large benefits despite the very fact that the suit failed in it essential mission: most trust account holders still don’t know any more about how our lands were mismanaged. Even after 12 years of litigation and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, we still don’t know. But when the few get their big money, the rest are expected to walk away happy with the equivalent of a peanut.

I am not complaining about the named plaintiffs or lawyers in this case. They undertook a noble and heroic mission, though it proved impossible. They went forward, I believe in good faith, with the vision and strength of the best warriors of any Indian nation. They did what they could, but like Red Bear, like Chief Joseph, like Sitting Bull, like Geronimo, like Black Hawk, like Red Cloud, like Louis Riel, like Ira Hayes, like so many good warriors (men and women) trying to make a living and a life on our reservations and from our allotments, it wasn’t enough, it is not enough. They could not turn the tide of history or turn aside the bands of thieves wanting to hand Indians trinkets for their eternal treasures. Still, I honor them, although I can’t help begrudge the real money they will get. And I can’t help but wonder if the large amounts didn’t entice them to "opt in" for all of us.

But again, that is not why I opted out. With the Cobell settlement, I feel like I am standing between "eternity" and a hard place. Some things you just have to hold on to no matter what. Five hundred dollars, on the other hand, is meant to be let go of. Like my grandfather waiting for his allotment, I will likely die waiting to know the truth, but better to wait than to give up on what is right.

Jerilyn Monette DeCoteau is a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. She is on hiatus in her 27 year practice of Indian law. She has three children, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. She lives in Eldorado Springs, Colorado with her husband, Tod Smith, and son.