Speak Your Piece: Cobell Settlement’s Small Picture

In the big picture, the settlement that ended a 13 year legal battle by Indian people was so-so. The real victory can come in thousands of small pictures, like the one that happened to me.

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Looking at photos of Elouise Cobell taken over the last 13 years, one can see the depth of her struggle to seek redress for years of government mismanagement of Indian trust lands and monies.

Cobell is the lead plaintiff in the largest class action lawsuit ever filed against the U.S. government. The Blackfoot banker looks strong and determined in those first years. As the case dragged on, however, through the Clinton and Bush presidencies, she began to look tired, real tired. Her face spoke volumes not only about the challenges of the case but the long history of broken promises and treaties by the U. S. government with Indian peoples. 

On December 8, 2009, the Department of the Interior released an announcement that the lawsuit had been settled.  In the recent photos splashed across the internet, Cobell still looks tired, but now wears a definite expression of relief. I did a gasp of relief myself when I heard the news. I can only imagine what she feels. 

(Editor’s Note: Elouise Cobell is a member of the board of the Center for Rural Strategies, publisher of the Daily Yonder.) 

She told Mother Jones magazine: “Indians did not receive the full financial Settlement they deserved, but we achieved the best Settlement we could. This is a bittersweet victory, at best, but it will mean a great deal to the tens of thousands of impoverished Indians entitled to share in its financial fruits, as well as to the Indian youth whose dreams for a better life, including the possibility of one day attending college, can now be realized.”

Department of Interior
It took 13 years for Elouise Cobell to see her suit settled. It was a long and hard slog before she was able to attend the press conference announcing that the federal government would pay $3.4 billion to settle century old claims of mismanagement of trust accounts.

In Cobell v. Salazar, plaintiffs sought $46 billion to resolve government mismanagement of Individual Indian Money accounts, which included revenues for use of their lands for grazing, drilling and mining since 1887. The settlement names a significantly smaller sum of $3.4 billion,  $1.4 billion going to 300,000 individual Indians for past mismanagement of trust assets and $2 billion set aside to buy back fractionated land allotted during the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) of 1887.

Under the settlement, Individual Indian Account holders will receive at least $1,000 and those wishing to sell their fractionated land will receive at least $500. This assumes, of course, that Congress will enact legislation to authorize implementation of the settlement. 

The most complex and potentially far-reaching part of the settlement is the land consolidation fund. Fractionation of Indian lands is one of the biggest land issues in Indian country. Here’s how it works:

Back in 1887, the U. S. government enacted the Dawes Act, which broke up Indian land holdings by allotting small parcels of land, 80 or 160 acres, to individual Indians. As original landowners under the Dawes Act passed on, the titles to the allotments were equally divided among eligible heirs. As you’ve probably already figured out, those original parcels have become mighty thin today, with the ownership of a small number of acres sometimes spread out over thousands of heirs. 

Sen. Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, namesake of the 1887 Dawes Act.
Fractionated land, with its many co-owners, stymies economic development. (Getting a clear title to land becomes nearly impossible with so many owners.) Broken into a thousand pieces, the land becomes nearly worthless. The income from my fraction of an ancestor’s allotted land on the Fond du Lac reservation in Minnesota pays me a whopping $1.51 per year. The Bureau of Indian Affairs sends me a statement every quarter — incurring more cost in postage alone than the income from my fractionated land. 

According the DOI website, land consolidation will help unlock unrealized benefits of fractionated lands for tribal communities. The potential bad news, however, is that BIA’s existing Land Consolidation Program will be placed in charge of buying up the fractionated land.

We don’t know how the land consolidation program will work as a result of the Cobell settlement. We do know, however, that back in 2001, the BIA embarked on a land consolidation pilot program. It used federal dollars to buy fractionated land holdings in a few reservations. Selling their land back to the U. S. government, heirs were told, would allow tribes to make use of the lands for economic development. It was the same argument made in the Cobell settlement.

No mention was made, however, that the land would not be made available to the tribes until either income from leases repaid the government for the total cost of the buy backs or until 20 years passed, whichever came first, according to Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.  

“The structure of the land consolidation process will determine if this is a successful settlement for Indian country,” says Stainbrook of the Oglala Lakota tribe.

If the land consolidation process were conducted as it has already been by the BIA Land Consolidation Program, Indian country would effectively be paying for its own settlement, according to Stainbrook. 

The great thing about the Cobell lawsuit,  Stainbrook notes, is that someone was finally holding the BIA’s feet to the fire on the trust issue. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the settlement that continues that pressure.

A bittersweet victory, indeed.  The Settlement will only partially rectify the ugly legacy of the Dawes Act. Once again, the U.S. government, only under extreme duress, has bought us off with a handful of crumbs that now signifies a legal end of its culpability in the century-long scandal at the land trust. The government got off easy.  At this time, the big picture of dealings between the U. S. and Indian Country looks rather grim — and familiar.

There’s also a small picture, however, one that I can best tell through my personal experience with U.S. government Indian land consolidation and the way it changed my life. 

When my Uncle Don passed back in 1991, I received documents informing me that he had left me his fraction of land allotments on the Bad River, Red Cliff and Fond du Lac reservations in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The interest in one 80-acre parcel was 4.8%, worth about $400 if I could round up all the other heirs. 

It was a grand and loving gesture on his part and I was deeply touched. That old man had always believed in me and supported any number of my schemes, including the time he helped me rig Christmas tree lights to blink on and off in the back seat of my ancient Volkswagen Beetle/powwow car for a college art project. 

He signed the will with a shaky “X” since a stroke had paralyzed his hand. An attendant witnessing the will noted, “Mr. Rabideaux is mentally alert and knew what he wanted.” I filed the will away with the rest of my keepsakes. 

In 2001, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced a pilot project, in which the Indian Land Consolidation Program would buy back fractionated land from individual heirs on the Bad River, Red Cliff and Lac Courte O’reilles Reservations in Wisconsin. I remembered Uncle Don’s legacy to me and sure enough, the small holdings were salable.

The money, around $5,000, was a godsend for me. With my daughter diagnosed with autism, I was desperately looking for work that would allow me to cut down on travel as a photographer. I purchased a good computer and other equipment for a home office and finally launched my dream career of writing. I had longed to write my entire life but I was reluctant to step out of my comfortable work as a photographer. I mostly kept my dream to myself. 

I took my inheritance and the magic foresight that Uncle Don seemed to possess and strode boldly ahead. His belief in me and his gift created a revolution in my life for which I am forever grateful.  With the last of the money, I purchased a good head stone for his grave.  Visiting his grave, I am always reminded of his love and the deep well of strength I have as an Anishinabikwe (Ojibwe woman) if only I have the courage to grab hold. 

Who knows how many more small, personal revolutions the money from the Cobell settlement may ignite?

The big picture tells us that the settlement will not reverse the deeply entrenched poverty on many of our reservations. But the small picture looks a lot brighter. I know many Indian folks would rather not sell their land, preferring to keep it as a touchstone and I respect this deeply. For me, however, I see my story and perhaps the stories of some of the Cobell beneficiaries as a beautiful gift from our ancestors. They have given us what they could. Now it is our job to take this gift and do the best we can. 

 

 

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