A lot of reasons, though all of them start with Elouise Cobell, a Native American banker and businesswoman from Montana, who filed suit in 1996 against the Interior Department for the U.S. Government’s mismanagement of the royalties due Indian landowners through careless and almost nonexistent accounting systems. I was fortunate to serve for many years on the board of the Tides Foundation with Elouise and while chair of that board every meeting she attended would ask her at some point to report on the tedious, drug out process of the lawsuit for which she was the main plaintiff. Eventually, the demands of the lawsuit and the endless and usually unproductive stops-and-starts at settlement negotiations with different Presidential administrations forced her to resign from the board simply because they were so time consuming. Finally, in frustration, Elouise and others settled for big money, though far less than the enormous sums they should have received for $3.5 billion because they couldn’t stand seeing more beneficiaries pass away without their allotment. Not too much longer Eloise passed away herself.
Understand the trust. First it dates back over 100 years, and is based on the fact that Indians were given land allotments through various treaties, and the government was involved in leasing oil, gas, and other rights to the land, and was supposedly holding the royalties they received in a trust for the Indian landowners. You can hear it now, another broken treaty and another rip-off, and in fact that’s exactly what was happening. Some got something, but few got the right amounts. The amount owed was so huge that the Government’s basic reaction to the Indian claims was to delay as long as possible to mitigate the settlement, but make no mistake, everyone knew the day would come where they would have to pay, the only question was how much people would benefit. The problem now is that not only was the accounting bad, but the government was equally careless over all of the years of the trust and the subsequent litigation in keeping the list current of the almost half-million beneficiaries.
Almost 300,000 Indians have received some portion of the settlement from $800 to a couple of thousand, though some are owned five and six figure amounts. From jump the Interior department knew 65000 trust holders were unknown, and some better-late-than-never work has cut the figure to 30,000, but that’s a lot of people owed a lot of money, more than $30 million. And, another payment is set to be sent soon.
The government’s excuse is that the reservations are sparsely populated and far reaching, but my bet is that few still living in Indian Country on the rez have not heard the news that money may be waiting for them. My bet is that the bulk of the 30,000 are in our cities and throughout the US diaspora, which includes any and all within the sound of my voice or the sight of these words.
And, not surprisingly, there are shysters trying to scam potential beneficiaries by grabbing their bank account numbers so they can rip-off the settlements claiming they are representing the trust. It never seems to end.
Regardless, if anyone thinks they might be eligible or knows someone somewhere who might be owed a payment then do the following:
Call Toll-Free: 1-800-961-6109
Or Mail: Indian Trust Settlement
P.O. Box 9577
Dublin, OH 43017-4877
Or go on their website, www.indiantrust.com where I love the fact that they include an Ask Elouise column even now, three years past her death.