The $3.4 billion Cobell settlement that would reimburse Native American landowners for decades of mismanaged individual trust accounts could be back on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives shortly after Congress' Thanksgiving recess, much to the chagrin of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty.
The outgoing chairman opposes the much-delayed, controversial settlement, which the Senate approved Friday after numerous failures to do so, and says it is an insult to the traditions and culture of his tribe. Under Brings Plenty's leadership, the Cheyenne River tribe approved a resolution opposing the settlement earlier this year. The House has already passed two earlier bills approving the negotiated class action settlement initiated by Elouise Cobell and other Blackfeet account holders nearly 15 years ago. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer has promised to bring the Cobell legislation to a vote shortly after the House returns Nov. 29.
Cobell and the settlement's supporters argue that the $3.4 billion reimbursement is a "small measure of justice to Native Americans victimized by the government-run individual Indian trust."
To Brings Plenty, "small" is the operative word.
"It's not really fair, as far as the settlement is concerned, if you calculate what they should be getting paid," Brings Plenty said. "It's dangling some funds in front of individuals who are living in a poverty-stricken area. Of course it's going to be appealing."
The complicated settlement would compensate more than 300,000 Native Americans to varying degrees for monies lost because of the Interior Department's mismanagement of individual Indian money accounts since 1887, for things such as oil, gas, grazing and timber rights. It also contains federal funding to consolidate small fractionated parcels of trust land under tribal ownership and sets up educational scholarship funding as an incentive to do that.
All of South Dakota's congressional delegation supports the Cobell settlement.
Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin called the agreement "a major step forward in resolving this nearly 15-year-long lawsuit."
"This agreement will set in motion important reforms to protect promises made to individual Indian landowners and will ensure that the federal government will fulfill those promises. I hope that as the agreement moves forward, individual Indian account holders will be consulted and kept informed about their options and how the agreement will affect them personally."
Brings Plenty acknowledges that public sentiment in his own reservation community is split over support for the settlement. "There's two different ways of looking at this," he said.
He rejects the financial argument that says ‘something is better than nothing.'
"Give those individuals what it's really worth. Yes, it's expensive for taxpayers, but it didn't come cheap to our people, either," Brings Plenty said.
The Senate legislation is "revenue neutral," which satisfied complaints that the spending be offset to cover the $4.6 billion costs of settling long-standing claims of $3.4 billion in the Cobell suit and another $1.2 billion for black farmers who brought claims against the Agriculture Department for discrimination.
Brings Plenty favors taking a stand against the assimilation that he believes Cobell represents.
"The Cobell settlement is part of that," he said. "It's a piece of that assimilation equation. As far as I'm concerned, I don't think any amount of money would ever make right what was done wrong back then."
Katharine Many Hides of the Blackfeet Nation disagrees.
"My husband is full blood Blackfeet, and yes, he and I want to see this settled. We know it's not what is actually the amount that the Native Americans are entitled to, but it's something. It's time to put this to bed and move on. This government is not going to give back what is a fair amount, so why delay this any longer?" Many Hides said.