Is the Cobell Settlement Another Bad Deal For Native Americans?

In a pointed editorial in Indian Country Today, Angelique EagleWoman criticizes the $3.4 billion settlement between the federal government and the Cobell lawsuit's Native American trust account plaintiffs as “a scam”.  Ms. EagleWoman is a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota, is an attorney licensed in Washington, D.C., Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Dakota, and teaches Civil Procedure and Native American Law at the University of Idaho.

In her critique of the Cobell settlement, she notes that the normal rules for class-action lawsuits appear not to have been followed in the case, depriving individual plaintiffs of the right to “opt-out” of the case.  This prevented individual Native Americans from pursuing their own separate legal remedies for the government’s alleged mismanagement of Native trust accounts and lands. She asserts that when the $1.4 billion allocated to trust account payments is broken down among the number of Native Americans with claims, the per-person dollar amount averages out to a mere $1,000.00 – with some plaintiffs to receive as little as $500.

Based on the above, I call the Cobell Proposed Settlement a scam. As a Dakota woman, a lawyer, and a law professor, I am appalled that the U.S. government would attempt to push this through Congress. The U.S. government has imposed the trust relationship on Indian peoples in mid-North America. Surely, the highest fiduciary duty is owed to individual Indians whose lands are managed by the U.S. At every step, the U.S. government has used its attorneys to fight this simple action asking for an accounting. Here in the latest round, Interior wants to sneak through this proposed settlement and stop the accounting, the claims for mismanagement, and the rights of those who are most at the mercy of the U.S. trust responsibility. This would be on par with the bleakest eras of U.S. Indian policy such as removal, assimilation and termination. We need the eagle whistle-blowers to come forth in Indian country to stop this great wrong from being perpetrated by the U.S. government. – Angelique EagleWoman