The End of the Indian Wars: 120 Years and Counting

I first wrote about Cobell v. Salazar in Tikkun in March, 2008, when that Individual Trust Fund lawsuit was already 12 years old. Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell‘s pursuit of an accounting and settlement of land use fees collect in trust by the Department of the Interior since 1887 had met nothing but delay and obstruction of justice by government officials seeking to cover up an historic misappropriation of funds.

Finally, in December 2009, under President Obama, a negligible settlement offer was accepted by plaintiffs, who considered the nature of time and circumstance in making the decision. Congress was asked to ratify the settlement by February of this year. Since then, repeated congressional obstructions, leading to repeated extensions of the deadline for ratification, have delayed the settlement. When last she wrote, Cobell was pessimistic about the possibility of preventing a return to court.

Now Cobell writes of some significant success, but with perhaps the most forbidding deadline of all before her and Native America. It is worth noting, too, against her necessary political politesse, that while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats in the Senate in general have made genuine efforts to gain passage in a Senate vote, many  Republicans, and even some of those Cobell thanks, took their place in a long tradition of government officials who misused American Indians.

Since my last Ask Elouise letter (September 30, 2010), I and our representatives have been frequently meeting with both Republican and Democratic Members of Congress and their staffs. We have been advocating on behalf of our settlement legislation and its importance to over 500,000 individual Indians. The Senate has been a particularly difficult hurdle, having stripped us off of numerous pieces of legislation on multiple occasions for unrelated political reasons.

However, after almost 12 months of working with the Senate, it is with great pleasure that I can share good news with you – on Friday, November 19, the Senate unanimously passed legislation authorizing our settlement. The settlement was revised by the Senate to increase the distribution fund by $100 million and ensure that the neediest members of the class are treated fairly. One hundred Senators voiced their support and voted to pass legislation that will approve this landmark settlement. It is not possible to overstate this unprecedented vote of approval in the Senate. In an era of political gridlock and acrimony, and less than a month following one of the most contentious and difficult elections in recent memory, our settlement enjoys the unanimous support of the Senate. I’d like to extend my personal appreciation to each member of the United States Senate and their staffs, but especially to Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Senate Indian Affairs Chairman Bryon Dorgan of North Dakota, Senate Indian Affairs Vice Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

But, our work is not done.

Our settlement legislation must be passed by the House to be enacted. This is no sure thing for reasons that I mentioned above. We must be vigorous and redouble our efforts in the closing days of this Congress. If legislation is not passed by the close of this Congress, the Senate approval will be nullified and the settlement agreement will terminate. There is no hope of passage in the next Congress that begins in January.


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