Elouise Cobell’s Bittersweet Victory

Photo of Elouise Cobell by Julia Whitty

A break from the Copenhagen news now to note a quietly momentous development regarding one of the largest and longest-running class action lawsuits in American history. I first wrote about the mind-boggling intricacies of this suit, brought by Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet banker of incredible courage and tenacity, in MoJo four years ago.

It took 13 years and four named defendants (Cobell v. Salazar, Cobell v. Kempthorne, Cobell v. Norton, Cobell v. Babbitt) spanning three presidents (Clinton, Bush II, Obama), for Elouise Cobbell to win her suit againt the federal government for mismanagement of the Individual Indian Trust.

In a nutshell, the feds lost or otherwise never paid hundreds of thousands of Indian plaintiffs the monies owed them on lands they owned but were “managed” by the government for their mineral rights (think: oil wells) and agricultural rights for more than 100 years. Cobell’s forensic accountants estimated the government owed the Indians $176 billion.

Well, today, at long last, a settlement was reached with the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury for a fraction of what Cobell believes the Indians were owed. Nevertheless, the federal government has now agreed to create on behalf of the Individual Indian Trust:

  • A $1.4 billion Trust Accounting and Administration Fund
  • A $2 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund
  • A $60 million federal Indian Education Scholarship fund to improve access to higher education for Indian youth
  • Plus a commitment to appoint a commission to oversee and monitor specific improvements in the Department’s accounting for and management of individual Indian trust accounts and trust assets, from now on

The 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. That’s the good news.

But as Elouise Cobell says:

“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.”