David Hayes: Settlements honor our pledges to First Americans
"This month we took a giant step toward fulfilling that promise. On Nov. 19, the Senate approved five major settlements for Indian country that are nothing short of historic. It is my hope that the House moves quickly to do the same.

First, the Senate authorized the Cobell settlement, an agreement that will resolve the 14-year, highly contentious class action lawsuit regarding the U.S. government’s trust management and accounting of individual American Indian trust accounts. The settlement honorably and responsibly addresses long-standing injustices and demonstrates President Obama’s commitment to reconciliation and empowerment for Indian nations.

With the approval of the settlement, a fund totaling $1.5 billion will be distributed to class members to compensate them for their historical accounting claims and to resolve potential claims that prior U.S. officials mismanaged the administration of trust assets.

The settlement also establishes a $1.9 billion fund for the voluntary buy-back and consolidation of fractionated land interests to address the continued proliferation of thousands of new trust accounts caused by the division of land interests through succeeding generations and for other trust related activities. The land consolidation program will provide individual Indians with an opportunity to consolidate and transfer divided ownership interests to their tribal governments, where they will remain in trust for the benefit of tribal communities. Individual Indians will receive cash payments for these transfers and, as an additional incentive, transfers will trigger government payments into a $60 million Indian scholarship fund.

It is important to note that Cobell is only the start of true trust reform. The Department of the Interior, in consultation with tribes, is establishing a Secretarial Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform. This commission will undertake a forward-looking, comprehensive evaluation of how Interior manages and administers our trust responsibilities. We need to be more transparent and customer-friendly. The status quo is not acceptable.

Second, the Senate approved four Indian water rights settlements – totaling more than $1 billion – that will deliver clean drinking water to tribes in New Mexico, Arizona and Montana. For these communities, the permanent water supply will offer economic security and end decades of water allocation controversy and contention among neighboring communities."

Get the Story:
David Hayes: Honoring our pledge to the First Americans (Indian Country Today 11/30)

Related Stories:
Audio for White House conference call on Claims Settlement Act (11/29)