Elouise Cobell may not be alive to see the full fruits of her decade spearheading U.S. history’s largest class action lawsuit–the Blackfoot activist died of cancer in 2011 at age 65–but as the payments from the $3.4 billion settlement roll out across Indian country, those close to her are reminded of her determination.
On March 12, the Secretary of the Interior announced that the Native education component from the Cobell v. Salazar lawsuit–challenging the government’s mismanagement of the trust funds of a half-million Native Americans–would be administered by the American Indian College Fund.
Meanwhile, lawyers from the case have taken a dispute over the division of nearly $100 million in legal costs to court, with a Washington D.C. hearing held on March 18.
The new developments come in the wake of months of problems sending out cheques to class members–amounting to an average $2,000 per claimant–because of difficulties tracking down their addresses.
“I’m sure that she was greatly anguished she couldn’t live to see the moneys sent to the people she was fighting for all those years,” said Cobell’s friend and former publicist, Bill McAllister. “I’m sure she never had any idea when she filed her lawsuit that it would go on for so long and be so complicated and controversial.
“She thought, when she filed it back in ’96, that it might take two to three years, but the government wouldn’t settle it right away. So many people in the Interior Department, over the years, had acknowledged what a mess the management of the Indian trust had been. There were reports after reports from the government about just how big a mess it was, and how much money hadn’t been accounted for.”
McAllister told Windspeaker that he met Cobell at her first press conference launching the lawsuit when he was a journalist at the Washington Post.
Her case revolved around the mishandling of a century of money held by the government in trust accounts for lands allotted to individual Indians. During the case, decades of concern over negligent bookkeeping turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. In many cases the government had kept shoddy records, or none at all.
And as the number of inheritors of Indian trust lands multiplied with each passing generation over the last century, now the government is buying back many of those allotted parcels in order to consolidate them in tribal interests. But some activists say they are angry that, once again, the government is treating Natives with what they call “paternalism.”
“There are conflicting opinions about why they (government) are the ones behind this buy-back program,” explained Sherry Salway Black with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)’s Protect Native Money program. “Tribes want actual control of these buy-back programs. There’s also issues with tribal ownership versus individual ownership.
“Many generations later, people have only a tiny per cent interest in these original allotments. Much of the land can’t be developed because you have to have 100 per cent of owners, which could be hundreds of people, and you can’t find them. So you can’t look at housing development or business development because of the status of the land. The theory is that if you used this money to buy back land for the tribes, the tribes could put it towards useful purposes... It would be better served to consolidate it – not necessarily all with the tribe, but for the land to stay in trust, to be protected – to have it be more useful.”
Another problem arose when the first round of cheques were issued late last year. Thousands of people’s addresses provided to the organization tasked with coordinating the payments turned out to be out of date, with many class members even unaware that they were entitled to being compensated. But Black said that through word of mouth, many of those “whereabouts unknown” individuals were eventually located.
For her, Cobell’s efforts set a powerful example of perseverance for Native rights, and she hopes that recipients of the money keep her struggle in mind, and understand the cause behind it.
“She kept this case moving forward, recognizing the past mismanagement of Native assets,” Black told Windspeaker. “There has to be a reckoning.
“It’s important that people know why the money is coming in: it was money managed in trust by the government, to account for properly, and they didn’t do it… It’s a settlement for a grievous wrong that been done over a 100-plus years.”
But the sudden influx of money into Aboriginal communities across the U.S.–there are 500,000 recipients–has raised concerns about consumer scams and other fraud taking advantage of Indigenous people.
As a response to the Cobell settlement, as well as similar lawsuits launched by tribal governments over separately managed trust accounts, the NCAI launched its Protect Native Money campaign to educate and raise awareness both of the dangers of consumer scams and to promote smart money management.
“In the next few years, we’re going to see basically $3 billion hit Indian country,” Black explained. “Some of the tribal trust settlements have been in the court system forever. When we realized there was potentially for it all hitting at the same time, we thought, ‘Oh gosh, we gotta get the word out to be prepared!’
“Not just Indian country and Indian people need financial information and protection. Everybody does... But American Indian people had highest rates of consumer fraud against them... We know that it’s an issue from past (legal) settlements in Indian country... You have people who are scammers, out to take advantage of people who have that money coming in... There are people out there wanting to sell used cars, probably mostly lemons or ones that have been in accidents or floods: ‘Here, you can have it for $1,000’ – which is exactly what the cheque was.”
The NCAI hopes that tribal traditions of wise resource use can inform their investment decisions, not only with Cobell settlement money, but in all their savings.
McAllister said the historic lawsuit settlement–as well as the emphasis on Native education, an issue of great importance to Cobell herself–serves as a legacy of one woman’s struggle for justice against many odds.
“I remember her determination and grit,” McAllister told Windspeaker. “She was always very proud of being a Native.
“One of the tribes gave her eagle feathers... That was a great honour to her. The eagle feathers were given by that tribe only to warriors; it was rare, as a woman, even to get eagle feathers. She was very proud of that recognition.”