Bittersweet Celebrations as U.S. Pays $3.5 Billion to American Indians

The administration settles a historic class-action lawsuit over misuse of Indian lands. Reactions from D.C. to Bozeman, MT.

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The Obama administration announced Wednesday that the U.S. government will pay American Indians $3.4 billion to settle one of the largest class action suits against the federal government in American history. The lawsuit settles claims over the mismanagement of land trusts that date back to the 1867 Dawes Act, which divided Indian lands throughout the country. The administration's decision acknowledges that for more than a century, the federal government leased over 56 million acres of Indian lands to oil, gas and timber companies without fairly compensating the tribes who owned the land.

According to The New York Times, $1.4 billion will go directly to the case's thousands of plaintiffs, $2 billion to consolidate Indian lands, and $60 million to create a college trust fund for American Indians. Nearly all agree that the settlement is historically momentous, but by some estimates, the federal government owes the Indian tribes over $137 billion for its mismanagement of the land, and some columnists say the payout is bittersweet. Responses to the settlement--from Washington, D.C. to Bozeman, Montana:

  • Victory  The National Congress of American Indians says "The proposed settlement of the litigation represents a significant breakthrough on an issue that has troubled Indian country for many decades."
  • Blackfoot Tribe Welcomes the Settlement  KFBB, a local news station in Montanta, says "Tribal leaders are calling it a major victory for all Native Americans." Blackfeet Elder Al Potts is satisfied. “I’m glad because the people have been waiting so long," he said.
  • Praise From Indian Country  The American Indian news site says "reaction from Indian Country to the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement has been mostly positive." 
  • We Didn't Get What We Were Owed, But We Finally Got Something  Elouise Cobell, the case's plaintiff and a member of the Blackfeet tribe, said "today is a monumental day for all of the people in Indian Country that have waited so long for justice." The member of the Blackfeet tribe said the settlement is less than tribes are owed, but better than nothing. "Did we get all the money that was due us? Probably not," Cobell said, but added: "There's too many individual Indian beneficiaries that are dying every single day without their money."
  • A Way to Move Forward  The editorial board of the Great Falls Tribune in Montana says that while "there are many other stresses between the federal government and American Indians," this case "has been a dark cloud over the relationship for decades." They say it's time for closure. "We encourage Congress and the courts to move quickly to sign off on the settlement and put the issue to rest."
  • 'We Should All Be Dancing in Our Moccasins,'  Florence Garcia  told The Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She is a member of the Dakota tribe and a student at Montanta State University.

Reaction from readers at Indian Country Today was more mixed, however:

Digoweli: "If America truly wanted to settle the problem honorably America would pay enough for a genuine capital nest egg to those documented individuals who held out for so long and fought the fight so that they could start their business and feed their children."
Wanbli: "A mere thousand dollars for each member, this is a national spit in the face of the Creator, the Son and the poor among our people and all living things."

Nimiipuu: "Thank you Elouise Cobell for having the back bone to stand up to the Bureau and holding them accountable. We did not get what was entitled to us, but it was never for me, it was for our ancestors."

Here's the reaction from Washington:

  • Bittersweet  At Mother Jones, Julia Whitty says the settlement is a fraction of what American Indians are owed. But she says it's a victory nonetheless. "The settlement is believed to be the largest ever against the federal government and dwarfs the combined value of all judgments and settlements of all Indian cases since the founding of this nation. That's the good news."
  • Landmark Legal Case  Ashby Jones says the settlement piqued the attention of The Wall Street Journal. "Federal Indian law — or the law pertaining to the land and other holdings owned by Native Americans — isn’t a typical area of coverage for us. But when a lawsuit between Native American and the U.S. government settles for $3.4 billion, well, we sit up and take serious notice."
  • A Small Sense of Justice  Law and politics blogger Jacob Levy, who has been following the case for years, says the settlement is "on the low end of conscionability: better than nothing, but nothing to be especially proud of." Still, he writes, "good for the Obama administration for conducting serious settlement talks and not stonewalling in the way the Clinton and Bush administrations did so relentlessly." 
  • What About Reparations For Slavery?  Scott Jagow of American Public Media's Marketplace sees some interesting parallels. "But as for the federal government, do you think financial payments for events that occurred so long ago are justified/needed? Should financial reparations be extended to African-Americans for slavery? I know there are legal differences between the two cases, but there’s some moral symmetry…"
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