Cobell Lawsuit & Settlement | Opinion

Vi Waln: Questions remain about $3.4B Indian trust settlement





I believe there are many Indian people who still have unanswered questions about the Cobell Settlement. We now know that certain Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders will receive a $1,000 cash award for being part of the historical accounting class or group. You cannot opt out of this payment.

However, you still have until 04/20/11 to remove yourself from the trust accounting class which will pay out cash settlements based upon a formula determining how much money was deposited into your IIM account over a specific 10 year period. You must opt out if you are considering filing your own legal action to rectify the mismanagement of your IIM account. So far, only three Indians have opted out.

If you choose not to remove yourself from the trust accounting class please know that you do not have to sell your land. It is not your fault if your land interests are fractionated between a gazillion owners. It is the fault of the Department of Interior (DOI). They are the ones who mismanaged the resources of Indian people for whom the IIM accounts were established. I still believe a truly fair settlement would have been at least $100,000 plus interest going back to the Dawes Act along with 160 acres of land to every one of the IIM account holders. But when has the United States ever been fair when it comes to negotiating with Indian Country?

The attorneys are now making visits all across Indian Country to answer questions about the $3.4 billion dollar settlement which is supposed to compensate our people for over a century of land, mineral and money theft. If you consider all we have lost as Indian people you might agree with me when I say that I don’t think the proposed settlement is fair at all. A “Fairness Hearing” is scheduled for 06-20-11.

You also might want to know the attorneys who represented the IIM account holders in the Cobell Settlement have requested a payment of $223 million dollars. They also want to receive $1.3 million dollars for fees and expenses.

About 75 people attended a meeting last week in Mission, SD. Attorneys Dennis Gingold, Robert Harmala and Alex Pearl answered questions from IIM account holders who attended this meeting. The entire meeting was also videotaped. There were no interpreters provided to translate what the lawyers were telling the elders who speak Lakota as a first language.

I learned we are going to get another set of paperwork in the mail called “the long form.” Maybe some of you have already received it. There is a toll-free number to call if you have questions. More information along with videos in several Indian languages can be viewed at www.indiantrust.com.

According to the attorneys, the Black Hills Claim is not part of this settlement. The treaties repeatedly violated by the government which offered them are also not a part of this settlement. These were some of the questions posed last week by tribal members attending the meeting. We were assured that the Cobell Settlement and the acceptance of cash payments by IIM account holders will have nothing to do with the Black Hills Claim awarded in the 1980’s. The attorneys repeatedly stated that the Cobell case revolves only around the years of mismanagement of resources entrusted to the DOI for oversight on behalf of individual Indians who hold beneficial title to those assets.

Cobell settlement payments are tax free. Any payments you receive from your IIM account do not have to be counted as income on your tax return. Also, these payments cannot be used in determining your eligibility for social service programs. Any money you receive from the Cobell settlement cannot be counted as income when you apply for assistance from any social service program; such as, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP), Commodity Food Distribution programs or Low Income Home Energy Assistance Programs (LIHEAP).

Some of the funds will be used to purchase land interests. An offer to buy your fractionated land will be made after the land is appraised by a third party, according to the attorneys. The offer must be one which equals “fair market value.” You do not have to sell your land. According to the lawyers, the government was not going to approve the Cobell settlement unless some of the money would be used to purchase land. I believe part of the settlement should have been allowed to pay you interest for all those years that you could not do anything with your land because it was fractionated into a gazillion owners.

Also, up to $60 million dollars will go into an Indian Education Scholarship Fund. The attorneys stated the scholarship money would be disbursed by an organization familiar with this type of work. According to the website “A non-profit organization chosen by the parties will administer the Indian Education Scholarship Fund. A special board of trustees will oversee the Fund. The trustees will be selected by the Secretary of the Interior, the representative Plaintiffs, as well as the non-profit. The Secretary will select his trustees only after consulting with tribes and after considering names of possible candidates timely offered by tribes.”

In any case, if you had an IIM account open anytime between October 25, 1994 and September 30, 2009 with at least one cash transaction you may be considered to be part of this settlement. If you have questions please call the toll-free number: 1-800-961-6109. Questions can also be emailed to: Info@IndianTrust.com

Finally, I heard the attorneys tell us that we would not lose any rights by accepting this Cobell Settlement money from the federal government. I don’t know about you but I have a big problem with believing statements made by attorneys. I also have a big problem believing anything promised by the federal government. The United States government has violated our “trust” in them too many times for me to count.

Vi Waln is Sicangu Lakota and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Her columns were awarded first place in the South Dakota Newspaper Association 2010 contest. She is Editor of the Lakota Country Times and can be reached through email at vi@lakotacountrytimes.com.

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