Eloise Cobell Settles the Indian Trust Lands Suit

Ideas and Issues Personal Writings

ECNew Orleans After 13 long years in court and even more years in negotiations trying to get the United States Interior Department to do right and make restitution for their shameful mismanagement of Indian Trust lands and the royalties that should have been paid, Elouise Cobell finally settled the case for $3.4 billion dollars this week.  Elouise is a wonderfully sincere and committed woman.

I had the honor of serving with her for several years on the board of the Tides Foundation until the rigors of the case and her work and travel from the Blackfoot nation in Montana and her work as head of bank there and the development corporation just sucked up all of her time.  Every meeting we added some time so that Elouise could report on the progress of the lawsuit and the endless negotiations that mirage-like seemed to point to settlements that never materialized until finally there was a commitment from the top – and exhaustion from the base.

Even in her statement yesterday, it was inescapable not to hear her sorrow that the amount was so much less than what it should have been.  The tragic mismanagement of the trust lands impoverished the tribes and therefore tens of thousands of families on the reservations, and now the dividend will be $1000 being paid as restitution to over 300,000 individuals for $1.4 billion of the settlement.  The other $2 billion will be used to help consolidate trust lands for the tribes – and to pay lawyers.

That bill will be huge because the scandalous efforts of the U.S. Government to keep from doing right here and to bury the claims of Elouise and the tribes has been monumental:

“The lawsuit spanned three presidencies and engendered seven trials covering 192 trial days, generated 22 published judicial opinions, and went before a federal appeals court 10 times.”

Elouise was quoted in the Times and everywhere else saying in effect that she had to settle now because too many over the last 13 years are dying while waiting for the money.  Knowing Elouise and having heard her tell this story so many times it was impossible not to hear the resignation in her voice and almost to see the tears in her eyes, even as everyone else was heralding a victory.  She knew they were owed tens of billions of dollars more that, if there had been real justice, might have permanently changed the lives of Indians in America forever.

Her quote did not conceal her sadness:  “We are compelled to settle by the sobering realization that our class grows smaller each day as our elders die and are forever prevented from receiving just compensation.”

Elouise finally settled, regrettably, because she has been a steward for her people and believed passionately in the justice of her cause and the burden to deliver a settlement proportionate to the crime.  She obviously feels bittersweet, but I celebrate her strength, courage, commitment, and tenacity to hold on against all odds and see the job done, one way or another.