Mary Pember: The small picture of the Cobell deal
"When my Uncle Don passed back in 1991, I received documents informing me that he had left me his fraction of land allotments on the Bad River, Red Cliff and Fond du Lac reservations in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The interest in one 80-acre parcel was 4.8%, worth about $400 if I could round up all the other heirs.

It was a grand and loving gesture on his part and I was deeply touched. That old man had always believed in me and supported any number of my schemes, including the time he helped me rig Christmas tree lights to blink on and off in the back seat of my ancient Volkswagen Beetle/powwow car for a college art project.

He signed the will with a shaky “X” since a stroke had paralyzed his hand. An attendant witnessing the will noted, “Mr. Rabideaux is mentally alert and knew what he wanted.” I filed the will away with the rest of my keepsakes.

In 2001, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced a pilot project, in which the Indian Land Consolidation Program would buy back fractionated land from individual heirs on the Bad River, Red Cliff and Lac Courte O’reilles Reservations in Wisconsin. I remembered Uncle Don’s legacy to me and sure enough, the small holdings were salable.

The money, around $5,000, was a godsend for me. With my daughter diagnosed with autism, I was desperately looking for work that would allow me to cut down on travel as a photographer. I purchased a good computer and other equipment for a home office and finally launched my dream career of writing. I had longed to write my entire life but I was reluctant to step out of my comfortable work as a photographer. I mostly kept my dream to myself.

Who knows how many more small, personal revolutions the money from the Cobell settlement may ignite?

The big picture tells us that the settlement will not reverse the deeply entrenched poverty on many of our reservations. But the small picture looks a lot brighter. I know many Indian folks would rather not sell their land, preferring to keep it as a touchstone and I respect this deeply. For me, however, I see my story and perhaps the stories of some of the Cobell beneficiaries as a beautiful gift from our ancestors. They have given us what they could. Now it is our job to take this gift and do the best we can.

Get the Story:
Mary Annette Pember: Speak Your Piece: Cobell Settlement's Small Picture (The Daily Yonder 12/16)

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