Cobell Lawsuit: An Overdue Reckoning, An Unpayable Debt

By Michelle Chen Dec 09, 2009

It’s sadly fitting that one of the government’s longest-running traditions–the cheating of native peoples–has fueled one of the longest-running class-action lawsuits in the country’s history. But a new legal settlement gives hope to some indigenous communities for finally receiving a little compensation for the government’s legacy of theft and exploitation. The case, Cobell v. Salazar, dragged on for thirteen years before reaching a final resolution, announced yesterday. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of American Indians whose lands have long been controlled by the federal government. This ironically named Indian "trust" system dates back to the 19th century, when the government essentially robbed natives of property rights under the assumption that they were too incompetent to manage their own land. This massive swindle was part of an effort to displace and atomize Indian communities in order to pave the way for white expansion. Since then, Washington has been tasked with channeling payments for the leasing of these land parcels for activities like gas drilling and logging. The Interior Department says it’s merely a middle-man for business deals that allow corporations to exploit the resources on trust properties. But the Cobell suit, brought by Blackfeet activist Elouise Cobell, argued that corrupt bureaucrats mishandled funds, systematically failed to deliver the money owed to many Indians, and even tried to destroy critical documents. Despite recent efforts to reform the accounting system, plaintiffs said the program was fundamentally marred by Interior’s failure to uphold its basic duties in a deal that was rigged against native people from the beginning. In light of the long history of displacement and the epidemic poverty blanketing native communities, the settlement is a meek triumph. There could never be a full accounting of all the old and lost records, so we may never know the true extent of the outstanding debts. Besides, no litigation or dividend could make up for the destruction of natural resources by big business. Yet the settlement, which the Obama administration wants to finalize through Congress by the end of the year, does contain some key concessions, according to the plaintiffs’ press release:

[T]he federal government will create a $1.4 billion Trust Accounting and Administration Fund and a $2 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund. The Settlement also creates a $60 million federal Indian Education Scholarship fund to improve access to higher education for Indian youth, and it includes a commitment by the federal government to appoint a commission that will oversee and monitor specific improvements in the Department’s accounting for and management of individual Indian trust accounts and trust assets, going forward. This Settlement is believed to be the largest ever against the federal government and dwarfs the combined value of all judgments and Settlements of all Indian cases since the founding of this nation.

Cobell said that winning "a measure of justice and financial compensation" individual account holders had advanced continual struggle for enfranchisement:

"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."

The legal settlement leaves much unsettled amid a deeply unsettling history of colonization. But this partial compensation is something to hold onto, for a people who will never be made whole. Image: Tex Hall, left, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, with Elouise Cobell and Jimmy Goddard, both Blackfoot Indians, on Capitol Hill in 2002. (Terry Ashe/ Associated Press)