Cobell Settlement Payments - How Do I Apply?

The recent Cobell settlement law will ultimately provide $3.4 Billion in cash payments to Native Americans who have ownership rights in one or both of two categories:

Payments for Individual Money Accounts: Congress has allocated $1.4 Billion to compensate Native Americans who hold government issued Individual Money Accounts, which were supposed to receive deposits from the federal government from sources such as lease revenues from oil drilling on Tribal land. People who hold Individual Money Accounts will receive varying sums of money from the settlement, depending on the determination of how much money the government should have allocated to a person’s account over the years.

Payments for Land Shares: Congress has allocated $2 Billion to buy back the “fractionated” land shares held by many Native Americans, which have often resulted in dozens of people being owners of a small percentage of a piece of land that previously belonged to their Tribe. People who hold these ownership shares in land will have the option to sell them back to the government, which will then turn the land back over to the Tribe to be placed in trust. The amount of money the government will pay for a given share of land ownership has not yet been determined.

If you are not currently receiving quarterly or annual IIM account statements and believe you are part of this Settlement, you must File a Claim / Register to Participate. You can File a Claim / Register to Participate online or print out a paper Claim Form that you can fill out and submit by mail.
If you are currently receiving quarterly or annual IIM account statements, you should still complete if you also:

  • Believe you owned an interest in trust or restricted land on September 30, 2009; or
  • Believe you had an IIM account open sometime between 1985 and September 30, 2009 and are not receiving current statements on that account; or
  • Want to establish your status as an heir to a deceased IIM account holder or individual landowner.

The information that you provide on the Claim Form will only be used to process your claim and to update Department of the Interior records.

TO SUBMIT A CLAIM ELECTRONICALLY, CLICK HERE.

TO PRINT A PAPER CLAIM FORM TO MAIL, CLICK HERE.

Seattle University Publishes Landmark Legal Treatise On Tribal Trust Land

Eric Eberhard, Distinguished Indian Law Practitioner in Residence at the Seattle University Center for Indian Law and Policy, has published an 862-page treatise on the principles and issues involved in Tribal trust lands. The treatise was produced in conjunction with the University’s law conference entitled “Perspectives on Tribal Land Acquisitions in 2010: A Call to Action”, and provides in-depth discussions of the legal background and current developments of Tribes’ quest to preserve and protect their traditional lands.

The treatise can be downloaded HERE, and CD copies can be obtained by contacting the Seattle University Center for Indian Law and Policy.

Professor Eberhard also serves as Vice-Chair of the American Bar Association’s Native American Concerns Committee, and is leading the organizational effort to create a new academic law journal focused exclusively on legal issues affecting Native Americans.

Back To The Future? Canadian First Nation To Implement Land Allotment Policy

Flag of the Nisga'a Nation (University of Victoria)

In a break from long-standing land control policies, the Nisga’a First Nation in British Columbia is set to begin allotting property to its members, who can then mortgage, lease, or sell it – even to non-Nation members.

The new policy is part of an ongoing effort to improve the economic circumstances of the Nisga’a. After three years of study, the Nisga’a government has concluded that restrictions on private property ownership by its members has been a significant obstacle to financial growth. The new policy will provide Nisga’a members with freehold title to their homes, which they can then sell or mortgage as they please, and the policy may soon be extended to the Nation’s commercial and industrial properties.

This new policy from a First Nation in Canada will contrast sharply with policies among Tribal nations located within the United States. The property allotment policy implemented by the federal government during the 20th Century is generally viewed as having been an economic and social disaster for Native communities. The selling off of Tribal lands, typically at below-market value in order to obtain much needed cash, resulted in the “checkerboarding” of Native reservations and an alienation of Native peoples from their traditional homelands. Tribes also lost control of significant mineral wealth and water/mining rights due to the loss of ownership of their lands.  Most Tribes within the U.S. have spent the decades since the end of allotment trying to regain lost lands and return them to permanent Tribal status.

Accounting Ordered For Federal Trust Land Mismanagement

Eloise Cobell (Photo by Karen Kuehn)

A class-action suit regarding mismanagement of lands affecting 500,000 Native Americans recently got a boost, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has ruled in the Cobell litigation that the federal government must provide an accounting for land royalties owed to individual plaintiffs.

The lawsuit was filed 13 years ago and claims compensation for Native Americans for land-related royalties from the profits of oil, gas, grazing, and timber – commodities that were taken from Tribal lands that the government has managed in trust for Tribal members since the 19th Century. In 2008, U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled that an accurate accounting by the Department of Interior was impossible, and awarded the group of plaintiffs $455 million, a fraction of the $47 billion+ being claimed in the lawsuit.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit disagreed with this result, and found that the lower court erred in eliminating the government accounting. Chief Judge David B. Sentelle said the decision essentially allowed the Interior Department "to throw up its hands and stop the accounting." "Without an accounting, it is impossible to know who is owed what," Sentelle wrote. "The best any trust beneficiary could hope for would be a government check in an arbitrary amount."

The D.C. Circuit panel acknowledged that the task is complicated and the Interior Department should focus on the "low-hanging fruit", dealing with clear cases where compensation is owed. "We must not allow the theoretically perfect to render impossible the achievable good," Sentelle wrote.
 

Should Tribes Be Allowed To Tax Trust Lands?

(Photo courtesy of Martha Lou Perritti)

In nearly every jurisdiction throughout the United States, local governments derive a significant portion of their operating revenue from property taxes.  The money land owners pay in property taxes goes to fund basic infrastructure such as roads and schools and services such as police and fire protection.

There is however one jurisdiction within which the local government cannot collect property taxes: Tribal lands held in federal trust.

Tribal governments cannot impose property taxes on reservation land that has been taken into trust by the federal government, which is typically most if not all of the land owned by Tribal members within the bounds of a reservation.  Tribes are thus deprived of the benefit of countless millions of dollars in revenue that would normally be available to any other municipality.  With poverty and sub-standard facilities still endemic on reservations throughout America, there is a sad irony in the fact that the place where property taxes could do the most good are the only places they cannot be collected and put back into the community.

The denial of taxing authority to Tribes also has another negative impact on Native Communities, this time in the context of the national consciousness.  In order to make up for unavailable property tax revenue, many Tribes utilize alternative income sources such as casino gaming and discounted tobacco products to finance basic services within their reservations.  Since in most states these offerings are only available within the sovereign territory of a Tribe, many Americans hold an ill-informed view that Native Americans enjoy "special privileges", and that other benefits and services to Tribes should therefore be curtailed.  The lack of understanding of why these alternative revenue sources are necessary could perhaps be overcome by touring the decrepit infrastructure with which many Tribal Communities continue to be saddled, but such ventures by non-Natives are far from routine.

There's no insurmountable obstacle to allowing Tribes to tax land within their jurisdictions.  The federal government could enter into taxing agreements with Tribes that would allow for collection of some form of property tax, which Tribes could help structure so as to increase revenue without placing an undue financial burden on Tribal members.  Numerous models for such agreements already exist, in the form of retail sales tax compacts between state and Tribal governments for business activities occurring on reservations.