Vi Waln: Settlement in Indian trust fund case benefits just a handful

Many of you are now receiving the “Court-Ordered Legal Notice” from the $3.4 billion Indian Trust Settlement. The letter is being distributed to “current or former IIM [Individual Indian Money] account holders, owners of land held in trust or restricted status, or their heirs.” The notice contains information about how the money is to be distributed.

The $3.4 billion will be divided in three ways amongst Indians. If you have an IIM account you might be eligible to receive money from the settlement. Some of the funds awarded will be used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to purchase fractionated land interests. Also, some of the funds will go into an Indian Education Scholarship Fund.

I believe the only people who will greatly benefit from this settlement, according to the notice I received, are the handful of plaintiffs who originally filed and their attorneys. The attorneys stand to walk away with anywhere from $99.9 to $223 million dollars. The notice also states “incentive awards and expense reimbursements” would be made to Elouise Pepion Cobell ($2 million dollars), James Louis LaRose ($200,000), Thomas Maulson ($150,000) and Penny Cleghorn ($150,000).

If you are a member of the Historical Accounting Class but want to exclude yourself from the Trust Administration Class, you have until April 20, 2011 to do so. Apparently, those of us who received a notice are considered members of the Historical Accounting Class. Thus, we will be forced to accept an initial payment of $1,000.

If the members of the Trust Administration Class do not exclude themselves from the lawsuit, I believe it might affect our future generations. That is, if our descendants decide they want to file a lawsuit against the BIA in the future, our acceptance of more than one check might prevent them from doing so. There is a fairness hearing scheduled to be held in Washington DC on June 20, 2011, at 10am. For more information see:

I have to say I didn’t give anyone permission to file a lawsuit on my behalf regarding my land and IIM interests. This lawsuit was initiated by lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell who is a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana. You and I will be forced to accept money even though we didn’t ask to be a part of this action in Federal Court.

Part of this settlement will be used to buy fractionated land interests from IIM account holders all across Indian Country. I first inherited land interests from my maternal grandmother. As soon as her probate was settled, I immediately received an offer from the BIA to sell the few acres of land I had inherited. The amount offered seemed like a lot of money but I didn’t take it.

Then when my paternal grandmother passed on I inherited a few more acres of land. Again, when her probate was settled I received another BIA offer to buy the few acres I had inherited from both of my grandmothers. I didn’t take the offer even though the money they were proposing could have filled up my propane tank to help get me through one bitterly cold winter.

I bet most of the settlement money will be spent buying those terribly used and abused vehicles that car dealerships are notorious for selling to customers living on the reservation. Or maybe your children desperately want those cool Nike shoes. Maybe the money could buy groceries to last a couple of weeks or a month, depending on how big of a family you have to feed. In any case, I doubt the conditions many Indian people live in today will improve much when they get their $1,000 settlement check.

A $1,000 check is really only a drop in the bucket compared to the money which disappeared over several decades from our grandparents’ IIM accounts. Soon after your $1,000 is spent the offer to sell your fractionated land interests will hit your post office box; many of you will accept more money by immediately signing on the dotted line. You might think to yourself “what is the use of owning a piece of land that contains less than an acre” or “I really need this or that and the $2,000 they will pay me is sure a lot of money.” In the end, many of us will convince ourselves that it is in our best interest to sell our fractionated land interests.

When our children watch us sell our fractionated land interests, even if it is less than one acre, they will follow our lead. When our larger parcels of land are in the hands of our children they will say to one another “well mom and dad sold their land when there was some kind of court settlement. Remember we got lots of money to buy those cool shoes? Let’s sell our land so we can buy those Nike shoes that our kids want.”

It is not your fault the land is fractionated. It was not the fault of our ancestors that the IIM accounting system failed. It was not the fault of our ancestors that poor advice was given by the very system set up to protect our land. In my mind a truly fair settlement would have been at least $100,000 plus interest going back to the Dawes Act along with 160 acres of land to every one of the IIM account holders.

Do not sell your land, even if it is a half an acre. The fractionated interests will surely be bought up by the BIA to hold “in trust” for tribes. What will happen when the federal government abolishes the BIA? Who will hold our tribal assets “in trust” then? I am afraid that much like the money that disappeared from our grandparents’ IIM accounts, the fractionated land interests we own on paper and held “in trust” will also simply disappear.

Remember Crazy Horse’s words: “one does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.”

Vi Waln is Sicangu Lakota and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Her columns were awarded first place in the South Dakota Newspaper Association 2010 contest. She is Editor of the Lakota Country Times and can be reached through email at

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