Payment to American Indians inadequate

Albert BenderBy Albert Bender, The Tennessean

At the most recent Native American conference of the Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform, held in April in Nashville, among the many issues raised was that of the Cobell settlement of 100 years-plus of Indian trust assets.

This class-action settlement of the claims of tens of thousands of American Indians, many of whom are resident Tennesseans, is just another farce committed against the most economically disadvantaged people in the U.S.

This past December, $1,000 checks were sent to thousands of Native American accountholders for money of which they were defrauded for more than 100 years. This was a token payment to represent royalties — for oil, timber, grazing, etc. — that should have been paid by the Department of Interior since 1887. The settlement, forced on Indian plaintiffs, was for $3.4 billion.

Sound like a lot of money? But not when the true amount of loss, with interest, for a century and a quarter was $179 billion. The $1,000-per-person figure would not even buy a decent used car. This is what the U.S. government thinks of American Indians. This settlement was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, because he thought it was fair. The settlement reeked of abominable villainy! The courts, the Congress and the president combined in this infamy.

But make no mistake: The verdict of history shall judge this “settlement” as a permanent blot on his presidential legacy and the U.S. as a whole. This $3.4 billion must also be seen in context with other issues. For example, in the Iraq war $12 billion was spent per month. In just one week, the U.S. government spent as much on the Iraq conflict as it did to settle an Indian lawsuit that it fought tooth and nail for 16 years. This is a grotesque injustice.

Some issues money can never address. Over that 122-year period, Native Americans lived, and continue to live, in a nightmare of hopelessness, deprivation and intergenerational trauma generated in part by abject poverty. Poverty stifles; abject poverty kills. Just think how the just payment of money due over this time span could have alleviated some of that misery. Think of how many countless lives — adults, children and the elderly — could have been altered and saved.

Currently, on many reservations the suicide rate among teenagers and young adults is the highest in the Western Hemisphere. This, again, is the result of generations of malevolent, intentional, genocidal poverty inflicted on Native Americans by an endless succession of U.S. administrations.

It will be to the everlasting ignominy of this government that there was no fair settlement reached, only more dishonor attached to a system covered with the gore of generations of victimized Native Americans.

This is the most scandalous forced settlement in American history. Never has so much been owed to so many, who have received so little.

Albert Bender, a Cherokee activist, historian and grant writer, lives in Antioch;