Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Elouise Cobell, a member of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe, and four other Native Americans led a class-action land use lawsuit against the U.S. government. Cobell is shown here in 2009 with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar after an announcement on the settlement of the lawsuit. Cobell died last year.
Federal officials are working to send out $1,000 checks in the next few weeks to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. The money stems from a settlement of the Cobell case, a landmark $3.4 billion settlement over mismanagement of federal lands held in trust for Native American people.
The case was brought by Elouise Cobell, a member of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe, and four other Native Americans in 1996.
On South Dakota's Native American reservations, reactions are mixed. The checks will help Native Americans deal with the challenges of intense poverty during the cold winter months, but some say the government is still shortchanging those who were cheated out of royalties for decades.
Ben Good Buffalo of Red Shirt, S.D., an isolated community nestled in the Badlands of the Pine Ridge Reservation, is one of thousands of Native American trust landowners who could get a check before Christmas. Good Buffalo says many will spend their share of the Cobell settlement to heat their homes.
"This house has so many cold winds coming in the winter; the propane that we use is just gone," says Good Buffalo.
This case is rooted in the fact that land owned by tribal residents isn't theirs alone — Native American lands are held in trust by the federal government. So any royalties — from, say, an oil well, gold mine or even livestock grazing — are managed by the government. But for more than a century, Washington wasn't paying Native Americans the money they were owed.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is heralding this first payment of the settlement money.
"This brings to an end years of contentious litigation that cast a dark cloud on the United States Department of Interior and on the nation-to-nation relationship with Indian Country," Salazar said.
Of the $3.4 billion settlement, $60 million goes into a school scholarship fund for Native Americans. This week, Interior officials also announced broad reforms that make it easier to build a home or business on trust land.
Donald Laverdure with the Bureau of Indian Affairs says that while the reforms will increase tribal self-determination, he knows there is still much to do.
"We've had 200-plus years of federal laws, statutes and regulations governing many aspects of how Indians govern their own lives," says Laverdure.
Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, a Crow Creek tribe member, will receive $1,000 now and maybe more money later. But Cook-Lynn argues this settlement does nothing to fix a system she considers corrupt.
"Our trustee has over and over spent our money and stolen our land. This settlement changes nothing about that," Cook-Lynn says.
Back in Red Shirt, Suzanna Two Bulls says her share of the money will go toward buying a cheap car so she can drive to the Indian Health Service 60 miles away when her grandchildren get sick.
"It's just that dire need to at least upgrade your life a little bit momentarily," she says.
After this first disbursement to about 350,000 people, a second phase could bring more money to Native trust landowners. But for many struggling through another winter here on this hard-pressed reservation, the money won't last long.