Who’d a thunk it? Five hundred and twenty years of military assault, ethnic cleansing, physical and cultural genocide, theft, lies, deception, dishonor, broken treaties – oh, you can’t even count the number of broken treaties – broken trusts and misappropriation of funds, and nothing seems to work quite right. Things are – how do you say? – broken.
I wrote last week about the impending conclusion, final resolution, the end at last, of Cobell v. Salazar, the Individual Indian Money Trust Fund suit – 125 years in the making – after seventeen years of litigation. The expectation is that payment of proceeds to 350 thousand American Indians from the $3.4 billion settlement will begin by Christmas. Of that total, $1.9 billion is set-aside for a land consolidation program to help facilitate the sale small, fractionalized land holdings. For now, the payment to most recipients will amount to less than $2000.
Estimates of the total amount actually owed to landowners ranged as high as $176 billon. Elouise Cobell, the moral force behind the lawsuit, died after settlement was reached, but before appeals were concluded and payments could be made. After delays in congressional approval of the settlement at the behest of Wyoming Senator John Barroso, four individual American Indians filed suits to block settlement. Those suits were rejected or dropped last month. Now, before payments are made, Dennis Gingold lead counsel for plaintiffs for the length of the suit, who by all appearances to an outsider had enjoyed Cobell’s trust all these years, and who assumed responsibility for communications after her death, has quietly withdrawn from the case just weeks short of its culmination.
Of course, attorneys representing class actions litigants on contingency are always suspected and maligned. Common fees are 30% of settlement monies. That would have been a billion dollars in this suit, an unconscionable amount given the particular historic nature of the case. Even half that would have been beyond the pale. Barroso’s intervention reduced lawyers’ fees to $100 million. Cobell always defended the work and compensation requests of Gingold and others. How does one measure the value of legal service on so massive of case for over seventeen years? Here is one take.
[Lawyer Dennis] Gingold claims to have billed an astonishing 48,772 hours on this case—which works out to almost 9.5 hours a day, every day without a single day off, between November 4, 1995, and December 7, 2009. This includes a seven-year stretch where Mr. Gingold billed 28,230 hours—an average of eleven hours a day, every day seven days a week without a single day off.
A hopeful person might wish to believe that resolution of so historic and outstanding a case of abuse, with compensation would bring some – oh, what is that word so cliché it is cliché even to mock it? – closure. Another opportunity for many to say, “It’s over; move on.” But so meager a settlement against so much owed and stolen, after such history, is not a tonic going down. Wrote Jay Daniels at Indian Country Today, expecting anticlimax:
Sad to say folks but expectation usually is more exciting than the gift.
The acceptance of the payment will conclude hundreds of years of injustice and failure to adequately protect our treaty rights. It will be hard to express our belief that we were wronged in the past because now it is made right with the settlement and payment
The comments below Daniels’ piece offer a fair picture of the currents that flow through Indian Country.
Yes. The average estimated amount of $1,000 or $1,500 won’t even cover one month’s rent in many places, like where I live. It’ll get pissed away paying for Christmas or paying off a credit card and then all it will be is a memory (make sure to take a picture of that check for posterity’s sake before you take it to the bank). Remember, it’s just a settlement because we’ll never know just how much money was stolen…
When I was growing up people in Indian Country often said “When I get my Indian money, I’m going to . . .” For all the land taken we received 50 cents an acre for prime timbered real estate in Washington state. Our families were “homesteaded” of their property and out of their homes in the 1920’s. For all of that we received 50 cents many years later. I wish we had that negotiation over again.
When I heard about this case and joined the lawsuit I thought about what I could do with the money: spend it on materialistic crap, pay off some bills, or save it. Then I had insight about what this money represents. To me, it’s not about the amount I get but more about a proud victory we as Indigenous People’s will share in a long history of abuse and torment at the hands of this government. Yes they have blood on their hands that will never wash off, but more so a small acknowledgement of THEIR savagery. After all, money is just ink on paper while my pride and love of this world is not tangible. Take a moment before you spend this money and reflect on what it means to you…
To be expected, too, are those who, like Cobell, like any litigants seeking compensation, accept a version of reality and find their satisfactions where they can.
Given the time it took to settle this class-action, the immense amount of paperwork, and the perserverance of Keith Harper and the Stockton people, it is a monumental feat to get this completed. Like any lawsuit that wants to make the injured person whole again, this small amount of cash will not do that, however, it’s more than most have at this point in time given the economy… I’m thankful to Eloise Cobell! CMO
I followed this case from the beginning.. it was an eye opener to the BIA…OST..Interior Dept..all those who were responsible for maintaining records…my ancestors are the ones who lost out..they received little or nothing for their land..many could not sign documents let alone understand what they were signing. Today I fight my own land battles…there will always be land battles… at least this case was successful in bringing out the wrong doings to our people..the money might not mean much to many but to many it will be all they get this Holiday Season.. I am thankful to the brave warrior who made it happen…RIP Eloise Cobell….your courage and strength will be remembered for generations to come…
As Daniels writes, there will be a day after the payments, the sigh after climax, and then what?
The White House Blog reports on this past week’s fourth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference. Initiated by the best friend Indian Country has yet had in the White House, who remembered at the conference his recently deceased adoptive Crow “father,” Hartford “Sonny” Black Eagle, still its attendees met with a president who offered for settlement of Cobell only that $3.4 billion. And you will search hard to find reporting on the event beyond the White House itself.
Five hundred and twenty years. Two thousand dollars in compensation per landowner. And a meager point, but not by the way, which do you think are the least read posts on this blog, least often recommended on social media?