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Cobell | Opinion
Cobell: Obama fails to bring change to Indian trust


Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, is the lead plaintiff in the Indian trust fund lawsuit.

As one of the many people in Indian Country who looked to the Obama administration for change, I am deeply disappointed with what it is saying about our 13-year-old lawsuit over the government's admittedly broken Indian Trust.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has stated repeatedly he wants to see our class-action lawsuit settled. That claim was repeated last week by his spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff who told Indian Country Today the secretary "is sincere in trying to find a resolution to this case."

Yet she then went on to maintain there is a reason why we should not have heard from the government's representatives on his wish for a settlement. "Given the fact that the matter is in litigation, any interaction needs to take place through legal counsel," she said.

The truth is that is not the way it has worked in the past when previous administrations made overtures to us about settlement.

Although those efforts never produced any productive results, there were efforts by the political leaders of previous administrations to talk to us about resolving the case. And that includes the Bush administration, which did so only weeks after taking office.

The talks must be at the highest level among people who have the authority to deal with the major, historic policy issues involved.

This case is not just about a mere trespass or contract breach or disagreement over a few words in a statute.

The vastness of this case and the implications for relations between Native people and the United States require that the talks must include officials at the highest level who can make those types of major decisions and not merely involve government trial lawyers.

Past history in this case shows that unless the highest levels of government are at the table, no resolution is possible. So they must be there and be there now. Anything less is insincere and more delay and another runaround.

I am also troubled by the language used the Secretary Salazar.

If he is sincere then he should not be accusing our litigation of taking money away from the needs of Indian Country. He should know that it was the Bush administration that deliberately cut funding to Indian Country and choose to blame our lawsuit for the cuts the cuts it wanted to make.

What seems so disingenuous about the secretary's sincerity is, as Indian Country Today put it, he "appears to be pinning lots of hope on the new" appeal of our case.

In short, what Secretary Salazar seems to saying is we will continue to fight through the courts the idea of giving any money at all to the Indian plaintiffs. And only after the appeals court rules, will we reluctantly talk settlement.

That's not the way change happens. All we seem to be getting is window dressing by the secretary. Interior is doing nothing more than following the old Bush line topped with a new PR claim of sincerity.

Why not settle now? Or at least begin to talk?

Given the trillions of taxpayer dollars being sent to Wall Street by this administration, our claim is small change. And the money at issue is, after all, Indian money that the government ordered placed in individual Indian Trust accounts.

We had no choice in the matter. Nor could we stop the government's acknowledged mishandling of our money. How hard can it be for the same administration, which quickly devised costly rescue plans for Wall Street and bankers, to come to the aid of the nation's first citizens? Native Americans are among the poorest people in this rich nation.

If our 13 years of litigation has produced anything, it is court decision after court decision, that the government violated its sacred trust responsibility to Native Americans. It should not take yet another court ruling for the Obama administration to begin to talk to us.

D.C. Circuit Order:
Cobell v. Salazar (March 13, 2009)

Lower Court Decision:
Cobell v. Kempthorne (August 7, 2008)

Related Stories:
Cobell hasn't heard from Obama administration (3/23)
Court schedules Cobell historical accounting appeal (3/13)
Cobell frustrated by Salazar's comments on case (3/12)
Salazar vows to resolve Cobell trust fund lawsuit (3/10)
Elouise Cobell: Obama must make trust a top priority (01/09)
Elouise Cobell: Indians still the invisible Americans (12/19)
Obama vows Salazar will fulfill trust responsibilities (12/18)
Cobell seeks speedy appeal in long-running case (12/10)
Appeal granted for Cobell historical accounting (11/21)