Charlie Colombe, a Rosebud Sioux Tribe rancher, is one of four appellants of the Cobell settlement. As the Aug. 22 deadline for final appeals approaches, the four remain unusually sedate since their last appeals were heard in May. File Photo © Native Sun News.
Cobell settlement moves forward
By Jesse Abernathy
Native Sun News Editor RAPID CITY — Another milestone has been reached in the over 16-year history of the Cobell saga. The federal government announced Aug. 10 that Native American tribes don’t have to pay back money appropriated for buying fractionated land under the massive Cobell settlement. Approved by the federal government at the end of 2010, over half of the $3.4 billion lawsuit settlement – $1.9 billion – was set aside specifically for the government’s purchase of divided-up tribal land so it can be returned to each respective tribe. Calling it “fair and reasonable,” a federal judge further approved the settlement following a daylong fairness hearing in June 2011. Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Nation member from Browning, Mont., originally filed the class-action suit in June 1996 over federal mismanagement of Native trust-land royalties. Cobell died last fall after a brief battle with cancer. David Hayes, the Department of the Interior’s deputy secretary, said in a written response to U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., that land purchases made with the money set aside in the settlement are not subject to liens, as reported by The Associated Press. “None of the express purposes of the ($1.9 billion) allow for the imposition of liens on tribes to repay the value of lands acquired” by the government to return to tribes, Hayes said. “This is excellent news for Indian Country,” Cole said in a statement. “The Cobell settlement was reached to compensate tribal members for decades of mismanagement,” said Cole. Applying liens “would be tantamount to requiring tribes to fund the United States government’s obligation under the settlement,” he said. Liens could be placed against the land purchased by the government under the Indian Land Consolidation Act of 1983, and tribes would repay the purchase cost with money earned from the land. The money then went toward buying other divided tribal land. The Interior Department has been working with tribes to reunite land that had been divided among multiple owners over many generations, the AP reports. Coming as the Aug. 22 final recourse deadline for the four Native appellants of the Cobell settlement looms, the announcement struck a chord with one of them – Charles Colombe, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who owns a ranch on the Rosebud Reservation. Colombe calls the news “wonderful.” The government agreed that the $1.9 billion is not a loan, he said, “and that is like a $1.9 billion gift, so I’m glad that there were some holdouts on (disbursement of the settlement money).” “If the government will pay fair value for what the land is worth, I think it’ll be a better deal than if the money had been a loan. Otherwise, we would have been subsidizing the Cobell settlement for $1.9 billion,” Colombe said, echoing Cole’s sentiment. The other three appellants are Kimberly Craven, a Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate member; Carol Eve Good Bear, a Three Affiliated Tribes member; and Mary Lee Johns, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member. Craven, the most vocal of the four, filed her appeal separately from Colombe, Good Bear and Johns, who filed a joint appeal listing Good Bear as the lead appellant. In May, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Craven’s appeal, saying her arguments that the settlement is unfair were without merit. At the same time, the court also dismissed the three other appeals, saying the basis for the arguments in that case were “utterly without merit” as well. With time running out, the four appellants have apparently decided against continuing the battle. They have the options of taking their appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, petitioning for a hearing en banc by the full nine-judge D.C. Circuit Court or accepting the May ruling and doing nothing. Craven and Good Bear did not immediately respond to requests for comment by Native Sun News regarding the status of their appeals, while Johns could not be immediately reached for comment. Some Native critics of the four appellants say they are being selfish in holding up the disbursement of the Cobell settlement to Individual Indian Monies (IIM) account holders, many of whom urgently need the funds. Most IIM account holders included as class members in the suit, however, will receive less than $2,000 under the plan, while the settlement lawyers’ take will be approximately $100 million. As far as what will specifically happen during this final leg of the appeal process, Colombe is uncertain. “I think we’re going to get blown out of the water, frankly. But we raised some very interesting points in our deliberation, and I think those points deserve some time” to be considered on their legal merits, he said. Colombe says most people know nothing of how the federal government’s trust-land accounting system works. But, “I do,” he said. “I understand their computer systems. I understand their records. I understand their title work. I understand realty and how you transfer a tract. I’ve been working at it for over 50 years, so I’m supposed to know something.” In addition, Colombe noted that “there’s not a single person that’s assigned in the whole records-keeping area, specifically, to subdividing tracts of land owned by multiple owners – they call it ‘partitionment.’ Not a single realty person in the Aberdeen or Billings (Montana) area (of the Bureau of Indian Affairs) specifically assigned to that – which, frankly, would be criminal in anyplace but Indian country.” He is particularly wary of the government’s actual valuation methods for the fractionated land it will be buying back from Native landowners. “Reservation land – because of its trust status – many, many times is not valued the same as the white man’s land – that’s a fact,” said Colombe. “When you appraise trust land – and the government has their own appraisers – they do not appraise anything but the surface value, so historically the government has put no value on minerals, for one. And, number two, they don’t make other, very valuable considerations – i.e., minerals are severable from the surface value.” Colombe also says the federal government overlooks the value of hunting in its trust-land appraisals. “In many, many places today, the value of the hunting is greater than the value of the surface,” he noted. “The government should tell the Indian landowner that he is also giving up his hunting rights – I doubt that they’ll do that,” he said. The $1.9 billion from the lawsuit settlement is a one-time expenditure that must be spent within 10 years. Any money not spent in 10 years will be returned to the U.S. Treasury. (The Associated Press contributed to this report.) (Contact Jesse Abernathy at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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