Opinion: Cobell case settled for pennies on the dollar
"In 1994, as mineral and gas corporations were discovering new reserves of oil and gas on tribal reservations across the West, a feisty middle-aged Blackfeet woman named Elouise Cobell decided the time had come to begin a long-overdue accounting of mineral royalties on tribal lands.

In December 2009, this sordid scandal inched its way toward closure when Cobell and her lawyers, along with their new counterparts at the Justice and Interior departments, announced they had arrived at a $3.4 billion settlement. The final paperwork will take months to get through Congress, but translated into real-world numbers, the deal amounts to a $1,000 payment to every plaintiff in the case. It also establishes a $60 million account to enhance educational opportunities for Native students.

"I spent a lifetime trying to get justice," Cobell, now 64, said last week. "This has been with me since I was a child, hearing about people not having money, hearing people say, 'If I had money I would buy clothing for my child.' I feel very fortunate that I was able to fight for the underrepresented."

Like the plaintiffs, President Barack Obama viewed this suit as a stain on the nation, and he came to the White House determined to see it settled. "When he campaigned in Indian country, he listened to us," Cobell says. "He was true to his word." Obama hailed the settlement as "an important step toward sincere reconciliation between the government and the Indians."

We'll see. After spending 20 years in the West dealing with white settlers and tribal chiefs, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman described tribal reservations as "a parcel of land -- set aside for the exclusive use of Indians -- surrounded by thieves." If you happen to live in White Shield, N.D., Window Rock, Ariz., or Lame Deer, Mont., in 2010, you're left to ask: "So what's changed in a hundred years?""

Get the Story:
Paul VanDevelder: This confederacy of thieves (The Oregonian 2/7)

Relevant Documents:
Agreement | Press Release | Q&A | Audio

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