DOI gives update on land consolidation program under Cobell

The Interior Department will start implementing the land consolidation portion of the $3.4 billion Cobell trust fund settlement by the end of this year, officials said today.

The settlement provides $1.9 billion to buy fractionated interests from willing Indian sellers. The land will be returned to tribal governments as part of the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations.

“Our plan is to begin … initial purchase offers by the end of the year,” deputy secretary David Hayes, who is leaving the department at the end of the month, said on a conference call this afternoon. “We expect to accelerate that process in the next two or three years.”

As part of the effort, the department has established an oversight board that is chaired by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Members include Solicitor Hilary Tompkins and Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“This is one of the most important parts of President Obama’s agenda,” Washburn said of the effort to restore tribal homelands.

Washburn said ten to 12 reservations are being targeted for initial offers by the end of the year. They include the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the Makah Nation in Washington, the Crow Reservation in Montana and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation in South Dakota.

The administration is finalizing cooperative agreements with tribes to encourage and accelerate the purchases. “That means the tribal employees will be doing a heck of a lot of the work on this program,” Washburn said.

Additionally, the department has established a $75 minimum purchase for fractionated interests “no matter how small,” Hayes said on the conference call. So beneficiaries with extremely small ownership stakes stand to gain from the program.

While certain tribes are being targeted, Hayes said landowners across Indian Country will be able to participate because the department has imposed a purchase ceiling to prevent the funds from being exhausted in any one reservation or reservations.

“We heard loud and clear from Indian Country that we need to have equity in this program — that every tribe that has fractionated interests needs to be able to participate in this program,’ Hayes said. “And that is our commitment. We are going to do that.”

“Every tribe can be assured the money will not run out” due to the purchase ceiling, Hayes said.

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;

Cobell Deadline March 1 for Trust Administration Class Payments

Cobell Settlement FormsRob Capriccioso of ICTMN

February 27, 2013

 The second Cobell settlement deadline is approaching on March 1. Indian class members must have submitted their applications for the second payments of the settlement, the trust administration class payments, by that date.

“Any claim forms must be postmarked by March 1, 2013,” according to a notice posted on, the website established by the Cobell lawyers. Claim forms can be found on the site.

In December, historical accounting class payments of $1,000 started going out to beneficiaries who had registered their correct addresses with the federal government, the Cobell lawyers and/or the Garden City Group, the settlement administration company managing the two-part settlement payments process at the direction of the overseeing court.

Some of these payments were sent to wrong addresses, so it is important to contact the Garden City Group to be sure that correct information is in place for the second payment, officials with the National Congress of Americans (NCAI) said during a January conference call with tribal representatives regarding the process.

The number for the Garden City Group is 1-800-961-6109, and their e-mail is

NCAI officials estimated that most beneficiaries would receive about $800 under this second payment process, but some could receive more. The calculation is based on the level of activity in beneficiaries’ Indian Money (IIM) accounts, held with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

The Garden City Group is expected to calculate the amount of the second payments, and the Cobell lawyers expect the payments to be sent by fall. Some $265 million of the $3.4 billion overall settlement has been released to date, according to the lawyers. Of that, $1.9 billion was released to the U.S. Department of the Interior to run a land-consolidation program over the next 10 years. Approximately $100 million was scheduled in to be divvied among the lawyers in the case. Some lawyers continue to battle over their share, according to court documents and press accounts. Lead lawyer Dennis Gingold left the case in December.

On December 17, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia appointed Judge Richard A. Levie to become a special master during the payments process. Levie will oversee appeals of payments and other issues surrounding them. Appeals questions should be directed to the Garden City Group.

Economy, distrust complicate allocation of tribal settlement money

High Country News
News – From the February 18, 2013 issue
by Debra Utacia Krol

 When the Obama administration announced in April that it would pay 41 tribes some $1 billion to settle a lawsuit over federal mismanagement of trust funds, many saw it as a sort of stimulus package for Indian Country — a chance to invest in long-term development and infrastructure, such as schools, clinics and roads.

“The seeds that we plant today will profit us in the future,” Gary Hayes, chairman of southwestern Colorado’s Ute Mountain Utes, told the Associated Press. “These agreements mark a new beginning, one of just reconciliation, better communication … and strengthened management.” His tribe, which received $43 million, initially planned to distribute about $2,000 to each of its 2,100 members, dividing the rest — about 90 percent — between the tribe’s general fund and investments. The Utes have long wanted to build a school on the reservation and improve health care.

But a few months later, Hayes was facing a recall election over the plan, and all the funds were being distributed on a per capita basis, under pressure from tribal members. The same response has echoed from tribe to tribe across the West — one that speaks to both the hard economic times and the lack of trust in leadership in Indian Country.

In 2006, 40 tribes joined Idaho’s Nez Perce in filing suit against the U.S. Department of the Interior, alleging a century of mismanaged trust funds and royalties for oil, gas, grazing and timber rights on lands held in common by tribal communities. It’s a different battlefront than the better-known class-action lawsuit filed by Montana Blackfeet leader Elouise Cobell, which represents individual Natives whose resources were mismanaged by the agency. The $3.4 billion settlement of the Cobell case authorized by Congress in 2010 is finally being resolved after being tangled up in the courts, but the resolution of Nez Perce et al. v. Salazar allowed checks to be issued relatively quickly.

As the funds began rolling in, however, conflict, not celebration, ensued. Nearly every tribe that had hoped to invest or save or otherwise spend the money has met with resistance from tribal members who prefer to see it distributed on a per capita basis. Some have used social media to make their point, campaigning on Facebook and Twitter to pressure leaders to “show us the money.”

It’s not surprising: Native communities are plagued by economic troubles, and a check for $10,000 or so can make a big difference to an individual or a family. According to U.S. Census figures, one in four Native Americans lives in poverty; nearly half the families in Hayes’ Ute Mountain Ute Tribe live below the poverty line. The prospect of that money vanishing into the coffers of a tribal government that may have a history of corruption understandably worries some tribal members.

Miriam Jorgensen, research director of the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona, says that the distrust over the settlements’ use is a two-way street. “Tribal citizens can find it hard to trust that their leaders will not use the settlement monies for personal or political gain, and leaders can find it difficult to trust that tribal citizens will not simply let the money slip through their fingers.”

 Jorgensen likens the dilemma to the larger national discussion over taxes. “You want them cut or raised depending on the perceptions you have about how the money will be used,” she says. “But what is clear from both logic and research is that the tribal settlement monies, whether they are distributed to citizens or managed by tribal governments, will be of greatest use if they can be invested and spent in ways that generate benefits for the tribal community for years to come.”

The greatest beneficiaries so far are the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, a group of 12 tribes in eastern Washington, which received $193 million for mismanaged timber and range leases. Last summer, a major windstorm battered tribal forests, knocking down the equivalent of more than 2.5 million board-feet of lumber along with 200 power poles, and wildfires destroyed two families’ homes. The Colville Business Council had initially planned to use 80 percent of the settlement funds to restore the forests and to invest in other long-term projects, and disburse the remaining 20 percent, or about $4,000 to each of the 9,500 members.

But then Joanne Sanchez of Omak, Wash., a member of the Colville Tribe, decided that tribal members deserved a larger share. The recession has hit the reservation hard. In 2008, as the national economy was crashing, the two core local employers — a plywood manufacturing facility that also included a pilot power plant and the tribe’s lumber mill — shut down. Close to 700 jobs were lost in Omak, a community of about 3,500. “We have had hardship piled upon hardship,” says Yvonne Swann, 69, another tribal member fighting for distribution. Sanchez circulated a petition calling for a referendum on whether to distribute more funds to individuals and encouraged local media to cover the issue. Her efforts paid off: The tribe overwhelmingly supported the referendum. The tribal business council agreed to give each member another $6,100 in addition to the first payment. Now, about half of the total amount has been distributed.

“We’re at the lowest point economically, and we’ve been there for a while,” says Colville Business Council Chairman John Sirois, who has a master’s degree in public administration. “I can totally see why the people needed the extra funds — they need to pay bills that have been put off. They have medical bills.” The Colville Council still plans to use what’s left over for forest restoration and to mitigate the wildfires’ impacts on the land and water.

The original plaintiff in the case, the Nez Perce Tribe, distributed most of the $33.7 million it received to tribal members, but held back $3 million for the Native American Rights Fund, which handled the litigation.

And where are the millions paid out to individuals going? With a dearth of places to spend it in Indian Country, much of it appears to be stimulating the border town economy, instead. Take Cortez, Colo., an off-reservation town adjacent to the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, where total sales tax revenues increased by about 10 percent during the weeks when settlement checks of about $12,500 each were sent out. Car dealerships did especially well.

In the meantime, the conflict within other tribes continues. Swann, the Colville elder, is leading a charge there to get all of the money distributed. And in January, the 3,000-member Hoopa Valley Tribe in northern California voted to give themselves 100 percent of their $49.2 million settlement. Recently elected Councilman Ryan Jackson, who created a Facebook site to communicate with his constituency about the settlement and other issues, acknowledged that the central issue is “how the trust funds will be managed.” Jackson now plans to run for chairman.