NCAI Approves Cobell Resolution

NCAI Approves Cobell Resolution

Kevin Abourezk is a higher education reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star and a freelance writer and editor. He has three children and lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Date Posted: 
2010-06-30 00:00

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RAPID CITY, S.D. – The National Congress of American Indians voted Wednesday to approve a resolution calling for immediate passage of the Cobell v. Salazar settlement by Congress.

NCAI’s resolution did not call for supporting a controversial amendment to the settlement offered by Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyo., that would cap attorneys’ fees at $50 million rather than up to $100 million as the settlement proposes.

“I was happy to see that NCAI threw out the Barasso amendment,” said Elouise Cobell, lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit.

The settlement calls for $1.4 billion to class members for redress of trust mismanagement and accounting claims and $2 billion to purchase and consolidate fractionated Indian land. The settlement also would set aside $60 million for a Native American scholarship fund.

The House voted to approve the deal just before Memorial Day, and the Senate is continuing to consider H.R. 4213, the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010, which includes the Cobell settlement.

The resolution approved Wednesday during NCAI’s Mid-Year Conference in Rapid City, S.D., also called for tribal participation in the $2 billion land consolidation program and for “fairness in attorney fees and incentive payments to ensure that they do not unduly diminish the restitution to individual account holders.”

“The Cobell settlement is the first step in resolving longstanding trust mismanagement claims and moving forward on substantive reforms to the future of the trust land system,” the NCAI resolution reads.

Cobell opposed the NCAI resolution on Wednesday, saying she worried the changes it recommended to the settlement could end the settlement, forcing the plaintiffs to return to court.

“That could kill the settlement,” she said of changes to the settlement. “We’re very careful about that.”

Earlier during the conference, Kimberly Teehee, White House senior policy advisor for Native American Affairs, said any significant change to the settlement would render it null and void.

She suggested tribal leaders with concerns over the settlement present those concerns to the court in Cobell v. Salazar after Congress approves the settlement.

“This is becoming an emotional issue,” TeeHee said of the Cobell settlement. “No one gets everything they ask for.”

The NCAI resolution called for other changes to the settlement, including:

  • Oversight to ensure Indian landowners are treated fairly under the settlement.
  • Consideration of environmental damages to Indian lands and remediation of environmental damages.
  • Impartial administration of the $60 million scholarship fund.
  • Separate legislation to restore tribal control over land management and land consolidation.

The new deadline for Congressional action on the settlement that Indian plaintiffs involved in Cobell v. Salazar have agreed to is July 9.

Cobell said she filed the Indian trust lands lawsuit on behalf of individual Indian land account holders and not tribes, which had failed to act on the federal government’s failed trust accounting system. She said she opposed tribes now trying to get involved in the litigation.

“They could jeopardize the settlement,” she said of tribes. “I feel that what’s in the settlement is fair.”

But Mary Lee Johns, an Indian landowner and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member, said it’s important for tribes to take a stand on the settlement as they will be affected by its stipulations, especially the fractionated land program.

She said she has long opposed the Cobell litigation because it separates individual tribal members from tribes, a process that the federal government started by dividing up Indian lands among individual tribal members.

“I’m very satisfied, very happy that this gave us an opportunity to let our voices be heard,” Johns said.

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