Plaintiff In Indian Case On Settlement

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/121216148/121216138" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

The federal government announced Tuesday a $3.4 billion settlement with Indian trust account holders after more than a century of mismanaging their money. Elouise Cobell, a lead plaintiff in the long-running lawsuit Cobell v. Salazar, says the settlement means a lot to her, but more for American Indians who have waited a long time for justice.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Over the years, this case has carried different names with one common element: Cobell versus Salazar, Cobell versus Norton, Cobell versus Kempthorne, Cobell versus Babbitt. Elouise Cobell joins us now on the program. Thank so much for being with us.

Ms. ELOUISE COBELL (Plaintiff, Cobell v. Salazar): I'm very happy to be here.

NORRIS: And, of course, the names that we have mentioned all secretaries of the Interior and that suggests just how long you've been involved in this battle. We heard briefly, in Ari Shapiro's story, you being the lead plaintiff in the suit that this has been a longtime coming - 13 years. What does today's settlement mean to you?

Ms. COBELL: I think that you almost want to say, like Forrest Gump has said, well, I think I'll go home now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COBELL: Like it's been a long drawn out battle and, you know, it's taken its toll on many people. And I think about when I filed this lawsuit I thought, you know, two years at the most and I would be ready to go home. And of course I was very young then. I was 50 years old when I filed this case and I'm 64 years old today. So you can imagine how long it has taken. So, it means an awful lot to me but even more what it means for all the individual Indian people. They wanted justice and I think today was a first step in the way of justice. Did we get all the money that was due us? Probably no, but I am happy about it.

NORRIS: What did you hear from the elders when you heard of the settlement? What was the first phone call you made?

Ms. COBELL: Every single day that I would go out to elders, you know, they constantly asked me about when will we get money from this case. I would like to buy my grandchildren some clothes. I would like to, you know, get some medical help. It was never about, you know, that I'm going to run out and I'm going to buy a car. It was like for the basics of life.

NORRIS: This case has been about compensation. It's been about apology. It's been about land to some degree. But it's also been about history. And the records that you have kept and the story of those records told did not comport with the records that the federal government or the department of the Interior kept. How important is that aspect of this story, as to your mind, correcting the record or agreeing on what the record should be?

Ms. COBELL: You know, this case is a result of the Dawes Act that basically set the individual Indian trust up. And the government, you know, said, you Indians are all stupid and incompetent and you can't manage your trust assets, so the government will come forward and be the trustee and manage these assets to the highest fiduciary standards. Well, you know, what happened was horrible. There was never an accounting from 1887 forward for individual Indian account holders. There was stealing. There was corruption. And what I think was particularly very smart of Judge Royce Lamberth when we started this case is that he put a protective order on the documents but the documents could not be destroyed. They had to be protected�

NORRIS: Because many of them were destroyed.

Ms. COBELL: And many of the documents were destroyed. In fact, you know, Secretary Babbitt and Secretary Rubin were held in contempt to court - first time in history, because they continued to destroy documents while we were in court. Maybe this case has brought forward that this behavior will not be tolerated anymore because, I'll tell you what, we'll be monitoring and we will be monitoring our trustee going forward.

NORRIS: You are sitting here in the studio right now and you're wearing a -pardon me for saying this - but you're wearing sharp suit. You are dressed with some beautiful jewelry, but back home the Blackfeet Indian tribe considers you to be a warrior. Is that how you see yourself?

Ms. COBELL: Well I think it's - I felt in this case - and the reason that I'm here today is because the elders constantly came to me and asked me could you help me, could you help me, could you write letters for me, could you do this, could you do that. And I did and with no results and no success. And so I just had to fight on. And I think maybe it's in my genes. My great, great grandfather was mountain chief. He was the last hereditary chief and he would not give in when the governments would tell him, oh, you're going to live your lifestyle like this. And he did not. He fought for his people and I think that's very important that we do all contribute to help individual Indian people that really need other peoples to assist them.

NORRIS: Elouise Cobell, thank so much for coming in to talk to us.

Ms. COBELL: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

NORRIS: Elouise Cobell is the lead plaintiff in the suit settled with the federal government today.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

U.S. Moves To Settle American Indian Suit For $3.4B

Attorney General Eric Holder (right) and Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar i

Attorney General Eric Holder (right) and Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar announce a proposed settlement Tuesday of a lawsuit alleging American Indians' trust accounts were mismanaged by the Interior Department. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Attorney General Eric Holder (right) and Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar

Attorney General Eric Holder (right) and Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar announce a proposed settlement Tuesday of a lawsuit alleging American Indians' trust accounts were mismanaged by the Interior Department.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The U.S. government on Tuesday moved to settle a long-running lawsuit over royalties owed to American Indians for use of tribal lands, proposing the creation of trust funds worth $3.4 billion and a $60 million higher education scholarship fund.

The class action lawsuit Cobell v. Salazar alleged that the federal government mismanaged more than 300,000 American Indian trust accounts for more than a century. The American Indians claimed they were deprived of money they should have received for sale or usage of land for oil, gas, grazing and timber overseen by the Interior Department since 1887.

Under the proposal, more than 500,000 holders of Individual Indian Money (IMM) accounts could be compensated.

In addition, the settlement calls for establishment of an Indian Education Scholarship Fund of up to $60 million to improve Indian youths' access to higher education.

The settlement will require court and congressional approval.

Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the case, said in a statement that the settlement falls far short of what the U.S. government actually owes American Indians, but she said it was the best settlement they could get.

"This is a bittersweet victory, at best, but it will mean a great deal to the tens of thousands of impoverished Indians entitled to share in its financial fruits, as well as to the Indian youth whose dreams for a better life — including the possibility of one day attending college — can now be realized," she said.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the settlement of one of the largest class action lawsuits ever filed against the U.S. government has been a top priority for the Obama administration.

"Between the settlement and the trust reform measures that the secretary is announcing today, this administration is taking concrete steps to redefine the government's relationship with Native Americans," Holder said.

Cobell, executive director of the Native American Community Development Corp., said many of the plaintiffs have died since the suit began to wind its way through the courts in 1996. The original lawsuit was filed by Cobell and four other Indians on behalf of present and past beneficiaries of individual Indian trust accounts, including 300,000 then-current IIM account holders.

"Time takes a toll, especially on elders living in abject poverty," Cobell said. "Many of them died as we continued our struggle to settle this suit."

In a statement, President Obama lauded the settlement as a step toward improving the relationship between American Indians and the federal government.

"As a candidate, I heard from many in Indian country that the Cobell suit remained a stain on the nation-to-nation relationship I value so much. I pledged my commitment to resolving this issue, and I am proud that my administration has taken this step today," he said.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.