Indians extol hard-fought trust victory

Great Falls Tribune

by Karl Puckett

BROWNING— To Nora Lukin of the Blackfeet Tribe, the $3.4 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit over mismanagement of land royalties owned Native Americans is bitter¬sweet.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Lukin, 91, who will receive a relatively tiny slice of the pie. “But think of all the people that died that won’t benefit.”

The settlement of the U.S. government’s century-long mishandling of money from oil drilling, grazing and timber harvesting on Native American properties nationwide was celebrated Saturday at the Blackfeet Community College here, where the fight to right the wrong began.

Lukin, an infant when her father received a 400-acre allotment still used for farming and grazing, is one of only 22 living Blackfeet members with original trust lands.

She was among 50 tribal members who joined U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in thanking Elouise Cobell of Browning for her struggle in settling the dispute over royalties generated from those lands. Cobell, 65, who lives 28 miles south of Browning on trust land she inherited from her deceased parents, filed the now-settled lawsuit against the government in 1996.

“We need to recognize Elouise as a tribal member taking this upon her shoulders,” said Terry Tatsey, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture program at the college.

The Blackfeet Indian Reservation is a long way from the White House. That’s where Cobell watched Dec. 8 as President Barack Obama praised the settlement between the class-action plaintiffs and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“We’re bringing it home,” Cobell said of the settlement Saturday in the student commons, were Blackfeet and U.S. flags hang side-by-side.

The ceremony in Montana — in Cobell’s hometown — drove home the fact that the case is finally over after a 15-year fight. “It’s tangible,” Cobell said. “You can kick it.”

Tester, who sits on the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee, hailed Cobell for her “stick-to-it-ness.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind this would not have happened without someone like Elouise Cobell,” Tester said.

Tester said that when he was campaigning for the Senate in 2006, Cobell pinned him down on his stance on the case at a powwow — in front of a video camera. That drew a laugh from audience members Saturday.

On a serious note, he added, “The settlement is now the law of the land.”

The General Allotment Act of 1887 divided tribal lands across the country into parcels between 40 acres and 160 acres and allotted them to Native Americans. As original allotment holders died, heirs received interest in the lands.

The lawsuit alleged that for more than a century the federal government mismanaged or squandered money in 300,000 accounts derived from economic activities — such as natural resource development and farming — conducted on allotted land.

Not everybody was satisfied with the settlement, but Cobell said continuing the legal battle would have dragged out the case for decades— with no assurance of a larger settlement — while adding millions in legal expenses.

“Nobody would be alive anymore if we didn’t settle,” she said.

Cobell started asking questions in the 1990s.

She told Saturday’s gatherers that the tipping point came at a meeting in Washington, D.C., that included Janet Reno, President Bill Clinton’s attorney general. Prior to the meeting, one staff person told her, “Now Elouise, don’t come here with false expectations.”

Infuriated, Cobell decided to sue.

In New York she raised funds to file the lawsuit and began to build a team of attorneys and accountants who could help.

The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., ended up being expensive, stressful and frustrating, Cobell said. Each step, the U.S. government was “chewing on you,” she added.

“I would never sue the United States government again,” she said.

A breakthrough occurred under the Obama administration.

Under the negotiated agreement, $1.4 billion will be distributed to about 300,000 class members to compensate for historical claims, with most getting around $1,000 each, Cobell said. A formal beneficiary notification period begins this week.

Some trust account owners could receive as much as $1 mil¬lion, but that depends on how the land was used over the years, Cobell said. Oil development, for example, would lead to higher claims for some people compared with others.

Lukin’s daughter, Mary Lynn, said the lawsuit wasn’t just about money. Cobell and the lawsuit held the U.S. Interior Department accountable, she said.

“Looking out for natural resources for the general population overshadowed the rights and interest of the tribal members,” Lynn said. The Interior Department estimates there are 33,606 beneficiaries in Montana who will receive an estimated $87 million combined.

In addition, the settlement will establish a $2 billion fund for the voluntary buyback of “franctionated land” interests. The fractionation was caused by a proliferation of new trust accounts as succeeding generations obtained interests in the same parcels. The fund will provide individuals the chance to obtain cash payments for their land interests, freeing up property for the benefit of tribal communities.

When Cobell was introduced Saturday inside the Beaver Painted Lodge, she received a standing ovation.

Shayne Hall, 30, said Cobell’s example of fighting injustice inspired her.

“I feel we can all stand up in some way, shape or form,” Hall said. As a student at Montana State University, she first learned about Cobell in an American Indian studies class.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this woman is from the Blackfeet Nation, and I’m from the Blackfeet Nation,’” Hall said.

She is now studying to receive her master’s degree in social work at Washington University in St. Louis. The settlement also sets aside $60 million for educational scholarships for Native American students.

The more educated young people are, Cobell said, the better chance “this won’t happen again.”