Montana would benefit from Senate Indian bill

Billings Gazette

by Editorial

The U.S. Senate took Montanans by surprise by unanimously approving legislation on Nov. 19 to address historic government mismanagement claims by American Indians and water rights on the Crow Indian Reservation.

The state of Montana and the Crow Tribe negotiated a similar water rights compact 11 years ago.

The American Indian accounting case was filed 14 years ago in U.S. District Court. A settlement agreement between the Obama administration and the plaintiffs, led by Elouise Cobell, a Browning woman and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, was reached in December 2009. The U.S. House twice passed the agreement by attaching it to larger bills that were stalled by Senate filibusters.

Montana beneficiaries

“In this environment, with the difficult elections we just had, most people would have thought this would have been impossible,” Dennis M. Gingold, Cobell's attorney, told The Washington Post.

The settlement provides that the U.S. government would set up a fund of $1.4 billion to compensate about 500,000 American Indians for claims on Individual Indian Money accounts.

The Department of Interior estimates that more than 33,600 beneficiaries in Montana would receive $87.1 million.

The crux of the lawsuit is the unworkable system that requires the government to hold in trust the earnings from agricultural leases, timber sales and mineral development on Indians' land. This system was set up in the 1880s when federal law allotted land to individual Indians. As landowners died — usually without a will — their holdings were divided among heirs. So today many parcels have hundreds of owners and each owner's share may be earning just pennies. Yet the law requires the government to account for all of these “fractionated” holdings and to distribute the earnings, no matter how small, to the Indian owners.

The system is a morass. Plaintiffs claim Indians have not been paid all that is owed to them.

In addition to paying individual claims, the settlement would attempt to reduce fractionation, setting aside $2 billion to purchase fractionated holdings from willing sellers. As an incentive for Indian owners to sell very small holdings, the settlement provides that in addition to paying the owner for his or her land, the U.S. government would contribute to an American Indian college scholarship fund with every fractionated land purchase. The land purchased would revert to the tribe for community benefit.

4 water rights pacts

The Crow Tribe would receive the largest amount from the nearly $1 billion water rights legislation, about $460 million.

“It opens the door to economic recovery for the tribe,” Crow Tribal Chairman Cedric Black Eagle told The Associated Press. “We would have the potential to utilize Crow water for the industrial use as well as commercial use, having safe drinking water, having an irrigation project.”

The other three water rights agreements involve tribes in Arizona and New Mexico.

The Crow water rights compact, hammered out in 1998-99 negotiations between the Montana attorney general's office and Crow Tribal Chairwoman Clara Nomee's administration, assigns water rights to the Bighorn River below Yellowtail Dam as it flows through the reservation. The pact was approved by a special 1999 session of the Montana Legislature and Gov. Marc Racicot.

Montana has a significant stake in both the Indian accounting case and the water rights legislation. Our U.S. senators played important roles in moving this legislation forward. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., spent more than a year, talking with Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who initially opposed the Crow water rights pact and proposed amendments to the Indian accounting settlement that would have killed the deal.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus said, he worked to make funding available for the Indian legislation and worked for bipartisan compromise. Fiscal conservatives apparently were satisfied by spending offsets in the legislation. The bill will be partially funded by diverting surplus money from nutrition programs and extending customs user fees, according to the Associated Press.

The next step for this legislation is the U.S. House. Although a majority of representatives twice approved the Indian trust settlement earlier this year, supporters should take nothing for granted.

In a letter to trust settlement supporters last week, Cobell urged them to contact their U.S. representatives by Monday and tell them to pass the legislation before Congress adjourns.

“There is no hope of passage in the next Congress that begins in January,” Cobell wrote.

Just before the July 4 congressional break, Rehberg voted against legislation to fund the war in Afghanistan, federal disaster assistance and the Indian trust settlement. Shortly thereafter, Rehberg's spokesman, Jed Link, told the Associated Press, “Denny supports finalizing the Cobell settlement but not when it means putting funding for American soldiers at risk and adding billions to already record-breaking deficits.”

We call on Rehberg to take a stand in favor of this Senate legislation that would resolve longstanding disputes, provide certainty about Crow water rights and empower tens of thousands of Montanans to improve their lives, their reservation communities and the economy of this state.

As Tester said: “We have a responsibility to get this passed and signed into law because it's in the best interest of Montana and all of Indian Country — and it's the right thing to do.”