House passes Cobell settlement, sending legislation to Obama

Billings Gazette

by Lorna Thackeray

BILLINGS – The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed legislation funding $5.5 billion in settlement agreements that will mean hundreds of millions of dollars to Montana Indians.

In a 256-152 vote, the House approved the Claims Settlement Act of 2010 that resolves a class-action lawsuit brought by American Indians who alleged that the U.S. Department of the Interior mismanaged trust accounts for more than 300,000 Indians – 33,600 of them in Montana.

The act included $3.4 billion to settle the lawsuit initiated 14 years ago by Elouise Cobell, a member of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe.

Cobell, in a statement from Browning, said passage of the act was a "landmark milestone to justice for Native people."

"This is truly an historic day in Indian Country as well as in American history," she said. "By Congress placing a seal of approval on this settlement, a monumental step has been taken to remove a stain on our national honor, and create a better future for Indians as our government begins to make some amends for grave past injustices."

The Claims Act also approved $1 billion to resolve Indian water rights cases across the nation. Of that, $461 million will go to the Crow Tribe to implement a water rights compact with the state of Montana and fund water projects throughout the southeast Montana reservation.

In addition to the Cobell and water rights settlements, the bill approves $1.15 billion to fund settlement of a lawsuit brought by black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for discrimination in lending practices.

The Claims Act has already been approved in the Senate, so the final step is President Barack Obama's signature. The administration actively supported passage of the bill.


Montana's lone representative in the U.S. House, Republican Denny Rehberg, voted against the act, explaining that, while the cause may commendable, he could not support spending for the multibillion-dollar bill.

"Balancing the budget means saying no, even to worthy projects, when you run out of money," he said in a statement issued immediately after the vote. "We can all agree that these Montana projects should have been a spending priority, but unfortunately, they weren't considered until the money was already gone."

Montana's Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester both supported the Claims Act and helped shepherd it through the Senate.

"The passage of this bill will finally provide a long-overdue conclusion for hundreds of thousands of folks in Indian Country who have waited too long for justice," Baucus said of the Cobell settlement.

An agreement was reached between the Cobell plaintiffs and the Department of the Interior a year ago, but it required funding from Congress. As part of the settlement, $1.25 billion will be available to compensate Indians with money held in trust in Individual Indian Money accounts. When the settlement was announced last December, Interior officials said most people with IIM accounts would get between $500 and $1,500. According to the latest Interior estimates, Montana Indians could receive a total of more than $87 million.

The agreement also included $1.9 billion for a program to purchase fractionated interest in trust lands and consolidate those lands to tribes. Fractionation, one of the reasons Interior accounting was so muddled, occurs when small pieces of land are divided among numerous heirs through many generations. Hundreds of people may own tiny interests in a small parcel of land. Each individual may have received just a fraction of a cent in income earned on the land, but it had to be accounted for in each owner's IIM account. Fractionated ownership also makes land difficult to develop.

The Crow Tribe water compact, however, is not a done deal. After Obama signs the bill, the tribe will hold a referendum on the water rights package. While the tribal administration backs the compact agreement, opposition remains within the tribe.