Master of Jurisprudence in Indian Law - University of Tulsa College of Law
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Cobell | Opinion
Opinion: Deal won't change much in Indian Country


"Last week, the Obama administration offered $3.4 billion to settle the long running Cobell Indian Trust lawsuit. The offer still has to be approved by Congress, but if it is, the settlement will bring both triumph (though not how you might think), and tragedy.

The suit has been a big deal in a relatively small world for more than 13 years. Full disclosure: I worked on Indian Trust issues for the Department of the Interior for two years, from 2005 to 2007. The drab truth is, the case—filed in 1996—was simply about whether the Department of the Interior could do an accounting of the individual Indian Trust funds it managed. Of course, emotionally, for those who brought the suit, it represented far more than mere accounting issues. It was also about anger and frustration, stemming from years of poverty, victimhood, decades of unfunded mandates, and a piecemeal web of legacy laws—many well intentioned at the time, but lacking much forward thinking.

The real triumph of the Cobell lawsuit has nothing to do with the settlement; rather, because of the spotlight trained on the issue, since the suit began, Congress has funded, and the last few administrations have dedicated significant resources to, programs designed to vastly improve the Trust’s management. That may sound like an inconsequential side note, but there are few such labyrinthian programs in place in the world—and certainly none that are more convoluted and irrational. Nothing like the Indian Trust exists in the financial world. Bringing up-to-date systematization to the trust was no small feat.

The tragedy of the Cobell settlement is that, apart from the possibility of establishing an educational trust fund, the money won’t likely change much of anything—it won’t raise Indians out of poverty, diminish rates of violence, or even make a whole lot of trust land viable and valuable. If approved by Congress, each account holder will be paid $1,000, plus an amount based on the value of their individual account. The 4.5 million Indians and Alaska Natives who don’t have trust accounts won’t get anything, and people living in their cars on their reservations won’t be moving into new homes. Meanwhile, interior still has to manage the trust based on a cobbled-together system of multiple adjustments to failing policies.

Nonetheless, a vastly improved accounting system, for those with accounts, is what people will get to celebrate when the settlement money is long gone."

Get the Story:
Dispatch by Maria Streshinsky: Triumph and Tragedy in Indian Country (The Atlantic 12/14)

Relevant Documents:
Agreement | Press Release | Q&A | Audio

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