Dec 10 2009
An historic settlement has been reached in a case of Native American land rights against the US government this week. After a thirteen year-long legal battle with the US departments of Interior and Treasury, a settlement of more than $3.4 billion has been reached, the biggest ever against the federal government, and bigger than all previous settlements and judgments on Native American issues combined. The US Department of Interior manages more than 50 million acres of Indian land which is leased out to various enterprises for mining, grazing, and even drilling for oil and gas. The money from those leases is then supposed to be distributed to American Indians across the nations who hold the trust accounts. In June 1996, Elouise Cobbel, a member of the Blackfeet Indian Nation, and four other American Indians, filed suit on behalf of all Indian trust beneficiaries, accusing the government of mismanaging the revenues of those trust funds. The terms of the historic settlement include $1.4 billion distributed to the Indian trust beneficiaries, and a $2 billion trust land consolidation fund. Sixty million dollars are also to be set aside for federal Indian education scholarship funds. According to the New York Times, “Specialists in federal tribal law described the lawsuit as one of the most important in the history of legal disputes involving the government’s treatment of American Indians.”
GUEST: Elouise Cobbel, a member of the Blackfeet Nation from Browning, MT, is the lead plaintiff in Cobbel v. Salazar, great granddaughter of Mountain Chief, one of the legendary Indian leaders of the West, Executive Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation
Find out more at www.cobellsettlement.com.
Kolhatkar: So I want to congratulate you on this, but I also know that you have been characterizing the settlement as bittersweet, that it’s important, that it’s a very large settlement, but it’s still not enough. Why?
Cobbel: Well, we all know; and many of us that have worked on this suit a long, long time; and individual Indian account holders know that they’re probably owed more money. But I do have to tell you that this is the largest class action lawsuit that has ever been settled against the United States government, so it is a large amount of money. And what’s very important to me, historically, is that the administration is addressing the historical wrongs and giving a settlement amount. The most important thing about this lawsuit, to me, is not the monetary award, it’s about how our trust assets are managed for the future. That’s been the issue: there has not been any accountability. The government themselves have talked about their breach of trust. So we are changing the way that our trusts are going to be managed for the future.
Kolhatkar: Now how did the government itself mismanage the accounts, for those of us who weren’t paying attention to this major issue? Was it a matter of undervaluing the land historically, or just negligence in calculating the correct amounts of compensation that was distributed?
Cobbel: Well, in 1887 there was an act approved by congress that was called the Dawes Act. It took land that was already owned by the tribes and parceled them up and redistributed them to individual Indians. Basically they were going to try and make all individual Indians farmers. Then, of course, who had the capital? An individual Indian at that particular period of time. Then the Secretary said in 1887 that “you’re all stupid, you’re incompetent. We’re going to manage your lands and your resources in trust.” And then nobody ever held them accountable, even though individual Indians were continuing to ask questions: “Where’s my land?” “I see these oil well pumping on my land, but I don’t have any money.”
Even though there was a considerable zillions of reports that indicated this fraud and corruption from the Government Accounting Office to inspector generals, it was there. Nobody paid attention, and so they got away with this for a hundred-plus years until we filed the lawsuit.
Kolhatkar: What sort of fraud are we talking about here…
Cobbel: Stealing money from your account.
Kolhatkar: Literally stealing money?
Cobbel: Yeah, well if you don’t have any systems in place, you can steal money any time you want. You could say, “Okay, I’m an IMM account holder, I’ll create myself an account.” And say you are a corrupt Indian agent, which there was plenty of, they would create themselves an IMM account, and if my parents had money coming in, they would just shift that money over to their account. Nobody has an audit, they could do anything. It’s like leaving a bank door open over night and the vault door open and hoping all the money’s there.
Kolhatkar: So people were personally stealing and benefiting from this because there were just no regulations or strict oversight basically?
Cobbel: That’s right. The government didn’t adhere to trust standards. It was just anything that you wanted to do. It was a totally mismanaged trust.
Kolhatkar: Now one of the responses from the government has been that “Well this whole system is so complicated to begin with. A lot of the original trust holders who might have passed away didn’t leave wills, and it’s hard to determine who is really to get some of the money to be distributed.” Are any of those concerns legitimate?
Cobbel: You can make excuses all you want, but in the real world trusts like this are managed all the time because they have standards that they have to adhere to. There are laws in place, and there should have been laws in place that were adhered to on our trusts. Just because we’re a brown people that they could manage this any way they wanted to, but that’s exactly what happened. And so when you have broken systems like the government has had–and I’m sure it’s other places, not only our individual Indian trust systems–but when you have systems that don’t exist, and people are using land without paying for it: timber companies, oil companies. That all happened. There’s years and years and years of corruption.
And the next you do is, you’re the government, and you know there’s corruption and all this other stuff that’s going on, then you just start destroying documents.
Kolhatkar: They were destroying documents?
Cobbel: Oh yeah. That’s why there was two secretaries held in contempt of court because of destruction of documents. Secretary Rubin and Secretary Babbitt were both held in contempt of court because of the destruction of documents. The judge had a protective order over documents, and even while we were in trial they were still continuing to destroy documents.
Kolhatkar: I’m speaking with Elouise Cobbel. She’s the lead plaintiff in Cobbel v. Salazar, the historic case that was settled after 13 years against the U.S. Government. A settlement of more than $3.4 billion was reached. She’s also the Executive Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation.
So what alongside this money has now been put into place as part of the settlement to ensure that the trust accounts are properly managed and that this does not continue to happen?
Cobbel: Well I think you’ve probably heard on the press conference that the Attorney for the United States Government and the Secretary of the Interior both have committed that reform will be done and that this is a horrible stain for the past, they will be addressing for the future that this will not happen again. I guess that if you can’t believe the highest people in this country, then who can you believe?
Cobbel: It’ll take all of us to make sure we monitor and continue to watchdog to make sure that our assets are managed properly, but we do have the commitment from the highest people in this country.
Kolhatkar: And finally, let’s talk about the $16 million set aside for higher education scholarships for American Indian youths. Why was that part of the settlement?
Cobbel: Well I think that’s very important because the majority of individual Indian people live in poverty on Indian reservations and in urban communities. If they don’t have the money to send their children to college… I think that in order for us to make sure that we have a difference in the way that our trust assets are managed is that we have to be more actively involved. I think that young people, if they have an opportunity to go to college, they will learn more and become more actively involved. It’s not like in 1887 when the majority of our individual Indian people could not speak English, and they were taken advantage of. That’s what allowed all this corruption to happen, and our trustee was asleep at the wheel in the United States government. So this will give us an opportunity through the scholarship fund for young Indian people to get educated and take control of their own lives.
Kolhatkar: Do you feel that the sort of… theft, that’s essentially what it was, over a hundred years through the mismanagement of these accounts is a central aspect to the widespread impoverishment of various Native American communities across the U.S.?
Cobbel: Of course it contributed a lot. If you owned your own home, and you owned your lot that it sat on, and you rented that out, and you weren’t getting the rent personally, and it was going someplace else, and you couldn’t do anything about it, you would probably be living in poverty. You wouldn’t have your money coming in.
So if you have an opportunity to manage that asset to a much better standard, then you can plan; then you can budget; then you have money to send your kids to college, to buy food and groceries, and you’re not worried day to day on how to put food on the table. So it had a really traumatic effect on Indian communities.
Kolhatkar: And again just to reiterate, we’re talking about more than 50 million acres of Indian land which the U.S. Department of the Interior manages, leasing it out to various corporate and commercial enterprises and is then supposed to take the compensation and distribute it to these thousands of accounts across the country that belong to the owners of the land.
So finally, Elouise, what do you think needs to happen to follow up from this settlement? As you said, it’s historic, still not enough. What more would you like to see from the government to make sure that this kind of historic thing is addressed, that justice continues to be served?
Cobbel: Trust reform, that this entire trust is totally rehabilitated back to health, and that people understand what they own, and accountability is to the individual Indian people, and the governments starts performing like a real trustee does. I think that’s very important.
Kolhatkar: Do think that under President Obama that’s likely to happen?
Cobbel: I think that the secretary has signed a secretarial order, and the president’s statement is that yes, that’s what they want to put in place.
Kolhatkar: Elouise Cobbel, thank you so much for joining us today.
Cobbel: Thank you.
Special thanks to Ross Plesset