Indian land trust abuse and the woman who finally got US to pay up
Elouise Cobell persisted 13 years in her case against Indian land trust abuse by the US. Now the Obama administration is set to pay $3.4 billion to rectify the century-old problem.
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The pivot point may have been candidate Barack Obama's campaign visit to the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. While there, he was symbolically adopted into the tribe by two elder members, Hartford and Mary Black Eagle, who spoke to him of the Cobell case.Skip to next paragraph
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After Obama became president, he instructed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to make Cobell's case a priority. Mr. Salazar alluded to Mr. Obama's sense of urgency Tuesday, in announcing the agreement.
"I heard from many in Indian Country that the Cobell suit remained a stain on the nation-to-nation relationship I value so much," Obama said Tuesday in a statement. He called it "an important step towards reconciliation." The settlement must be approved by a federal judge and Congress.
The settlement benefits native people coast to coast. Part of the award will be distributed to individual tribal members or their heirs, and some $60 million will establish a fund to advance college education for native young people. The US would spend some $2 billion to buy back and consolidate tribal land broken up in previous generations.
Cobell, now a senior citizen, is a former banker and a recipient of a coveted "Genius Award" of the MacArthur Foundation. She said Tuesday at the announcement in Washington that she believes the royalties withheld from native people can now be applied to investment that can rebuild lives and hope.
Unfortunately, she said, thousands of defendants who awaited restitution have died, and that was a factor in the decision to push for a settlement now.
"My every sense is that this judgment probably falls far short of the true financial loss. At the same time, this is an important moment," says Charles Wilkinson, an expert on Indian law and senior professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder Law School. "The award is substantial, and it shows that when Indian people organize and bring their complaints to the government they can be heard. This isn't total justice, but there is considerable vindication here."
"We're obviously proud of her but we're glad it's over," says Cobell's son, Turk Cobell, who is a hospitality industry executive in Las Vegas. "My mother is tremendously relentless when it comes to doing what she believes is right. Maybe now she can finally enjoy a normal life again and get something she hasn't had: rest."
• Associated Press material was used in this report.
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