Charles Trimble: Reaching a settlement for Black Hills
Lakota activist Bill Means got it right on when he wrote “Only in America if you steal something and hold onto it long enough does it become yours.” He was referring to the Indian trust funds settlement, or as it is often called, the Cobell settlement.

Bloomberg columnist Ann Woolner says much the same, comparing the Cobell settlement with the U.S. Government’s treatment of the largest financial institutions when their management incompetence sent the country’s and the world’s economy spiraling into near Depression. In her column titled: Cowboy Banks Get Big Bucks as Indians Get Little, she wrote:
“Over here you have the bazillions of U.S. bucks doled out to Wall Street’s cowboys for reckless conduct that wrecked the world’s economy.

“Over there you have a $3.4 billion federal settlement with people from whom the U.S. had been essentially stealing for more than 100 years.

“To seek what was owed them, American Indians spent 13 years in court where judge after judge decried the government’s gross mismanagement of their funds and “mendacity” in litigation. And yet it took that long for the Justice Department to step up to the plate and agree to pay more than a pittance.”

As the exhilaration of the trust funds settlement dies down, Native American citizens are looking deeper into its provisions, and many are seeing it as Bill Means sees it – just another mollifying gesture to get Indians out of the Government’s face for a while.

The term “settlement” is troubling in itself, for it sounds mutually satisfactory, and permanent and irreversible.

At least for legal laymen like myself, it is difficult to understand the settlement and the negotiations that went into it. I guess it is another case of just taking what we could get; but it is wrong and should make us determined that it will not happen again. But what can we do?

Not questioning the courageous and heroic lady who brought the suit, nor the fine legal team that carried it forward to settlement, but there are some afterthoughts that should be considered. For one, could there have been a better conclusion if the Cobell case included a national intertribal political effort along with the litigation effort? There appears to be a growing feeling that the outcome that affects tribes and individual reservation landowners and their descendents was negotiated by only a few. This will, I’m afraid, hurt the reputation of the heroic Ms. Cobell, and her NARF team, in history. It would be sad if that happens, because they do not deserve it. There was no great effort on the part of tribes or Indian political organizations to come forward with strategy or assistance.

This should be a wake up call to the Sioux Tribes that will be beneficiary to the Black Hills settlement, if or when that ever comes about. By settlement, I am talking about not only the funds that are supposedly being held in the U.S. Treasury until agreement can be reached on their disbursement, but land restoration as well.

As it stands, the Sioux have declined to push the matter until at least some of the lands of the sacred Black Hills can be restored. Accepting the money outright, it is felt, would jeopardize the possibility of any land restoration in the future.

But trying to outwait the U.S. Government only plays to their case. And the lesson from the trust funds settlement warns us that the Government may stall as long as possible anyway. As long as the money doesn’t have to be delivered in the tenure of any Administration or any Congress, they don’t have to answer for it. Each new Administration and Congress takes the same attitude, wringing their hands and decrying the injustice of it all. I am sure that the Obama Administration had every intent to deal honorably in finally settling the trust funds claim, but they also saw the wisdom of doing it expeditiously.

This should send a signal to the Sioux on strategizing the Black Hills settlement, where the restitution funds must be nearing a billion dollars as they set in the Treasury and collect interest. We should take a lesson from the Cobell settlement that we may not get all that money if or when the Sioux people decide that they will accept it. We should learn that it won’t be easy, and that only a percentage of the accumulated total may be offered by the U.S. Government. And if some sacred lands are restored, the Government may try to offset the value and greatly diminish the restitution funds.

It is considered heresy to even suggest taking the money without lands, and that is not at all what I am suggesting. However, perhaps it is time for the leadership and tribal governments of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples to begin a deep assessment of the situation. This should start with securing a full understanding that the funds have indeed been appropriated and are indeed setting in the Treasury, and the terms with which they have been set aside in the U.S. Treasury. And, of course, what freedom would the Tribes have in the allocation and expenditure of such funds if a settlement were made.

From this analytical effort, strategy could be devised for realistically pursuing the restoration of lands, and for the disbursement of funds that would be delivered – if any, at the time of the final settlement. And it should be the people through their tribal governments that arrive at any consensus on the strategy and make the final decisions.

To date, the Black Hills claim effort has been a muddle. True, it has involved some very intelligent and sincere individuals like the late Gerald Clifford, who laid out a workable strategy and held together a tenuous intertribal consensus. However, it also involved outside messiahs who brought with them grandiose goals and untenable strategies, and sold them to sincere elders who were easy prey to the flattery of those meddlers.

Today’s leaders of the Sioux tribes should start taking action or surely their succeeding generations will find themselves having to just take what they can get.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at His website is

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