Cobell settlement funds flow to Indian country

Published in Windspeaker newspaper | March 28, 2013 | Circulation: 145,000

Elouise Cobell may not be alive to see the full fruits of her decade spearheading U.S. history’s largest class action lawsuit–the Blackfoot activist died of cancer in 2011 at age 65–but as the payments from the $3.4 billion settlement roll out across Indian country, those close to her are reminded of her determination.

On March 12, the Secretary of the Interior announced that the Native education component from the Cobell v. Salazar lawsuit–challenging the government’s mismanagement of the trust funds of a half-million Native Americans–would be administered by the American Indian College Fund.

Meanwhile, lawyers from the case have taken a dispute over the division of nearly $100 million in legal costs to court, with a Washington D.C. hearing held on March 18.

The new developments come in the wake of months of problems sending out cheques to class members–amounting to an average $2,000 per claimant–because of difficulties tracking down their addresses.

“I’m sure that she was greatly anguished she couldn’t live to see the moneys sent to the people she was fighting for all those years,” said Cobell’s friend and former publicist, Bill McAllister. “I’m sure she never had any idea when she filed her lawsuit that it would go on for so long and be so complicated and controversial.

“She thought, when she filed it back in ’96, that it might take two to three years, but the government wouldn’t settle it right away. So many people in the Interior Department, over the years, had acknowledged what a mess the management of the Indian trust had been. There were reports after reports from the government about just how big a mess it was, and how much money hadn’t been accounted for.”

McAllister told Windspeaker that he met Cobell at her first press conference launching the lawsuit when he was a journalist at the Washington Post.

Her case revolved around the mishandling of a century of money held by the government in trust accounts for lands allotted to individual Indians. During the case, decades of concern over negligent bookkeeping turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. In many cases the government had kept shoddy records, or none at all.

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