DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Federal officials are working to send out thousand dollar checks to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. These payments are going out over the next few weeks. This is money from a landmark $3.4 billion settlement over mismanagement of federal lands held in trust for Native American people. South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Charles Michael Ray went to one of the poorest reservations in the nation to gauge reaction.
CHARLES MICHAEL RAY, BYLINE: On a crisp afternoon in the town of Redshirt a small pack of free-roaming dogs frolic in a crusty layer of snow. This isolated community is nestled in the Badlands of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Some of the houses on the gravel streets are boarded up, but the home of Ben Good Buffalo is warm inside. He knows how many here will spend their share of the Cobell settlement to pay for heating their homes.
BEN GOOD BUFFALO: This house has so many cold winds coming in the winter - the propane that we use is just gone.
RAY: Good Buffalo is one of thousands Native American trust landowners who could get a $1,000 check before Christmas. More could be coming in the second phase of this settlement. 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, a gold mine, or even livestock grazing are managed by the government, but for more than a century, Washington wasn't paying Native people the money they were owed. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is heralding this first payment of the settlement money.
SECRETARY KEN SALAZAR: This brings to an end years of contentions litigation that cast a dark cloud on the United States Department of Interior and on the nation-to-nation relationship with Indian country.
RAY: Sixty million dollars of the Cobell Settlement 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 is with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He says while the reforms will increase tribal self-determination, he knows there's still much to do.
DONALD LAVERDURE: We've had 200-plus years of federal laws, statutes and regulations governing many aspects of how Indians govern their own lives.
RAY: The Cobell case was important for Native Americans like Elizabeth Cook Lynn, a Crow Creek Tribal member. She'll receive $1,000 now and maybe more money in the second phase of the payout. But Cook Lynn argues this settlement does nothing to fix a system she considers corrupt.
ELIZABETH COOK LYNN: Our trustee has over and over and over spent our money and stolen our land. This settlement changes nothing about that.
RAY: Back in the town of Redshirt, Suzanna Two Bulls is watching her grandkids as they play on the wood floor of her one bedroom track house. Two Bulls says her share of the money will go toward buying a cheap car so can drive to the Indian Health Service 60 miles away when her grandchildren get sick.
SUZANNA TWO BULLS: It's just that dire need, you know, to at least upgrade your life a little bit momentarily.
RAY: The Cobell settlement comes after generations of Native American trust landowners were shortchanged. After this disbursement, 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.
For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray.
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.