How Cobell Came to Be Settled Under Ken Salazar

December 9 2009, 10:04 AM

Salazar, KenFor more than 120 years, the U.S. government has run a trust program to pay American Indians royalties in exchange for using their land for farming, grazing, timber cutting, and other activities. But the trust always seemed to be in shambles---allegedly mismanaged to the point that billions of dollars are owed the Indians on the lands they obtained in 1887, when the government broke up reservations and doled out individual parcels. In 1996, Indian activist Elouise Cobell filed a lawsuit on behalf of roughly half-a-million Native American land owners. But it wasn't until yesterday---following a protracted and at times confusing legal battle spanning three presidential administrations---that the government offered a settlement (via NPR). Though the amount is a fraction of what is owed, the government will spend about $3.4 billion for the unpaid royalties claimed in the lawsuit and will help tribes acquire small, Indian-owned parcels to establish larger tracts of land. The settlement creates new government oversight as well as an Indian Education Scholarship fund of up to $60 million (via CobellSettlement.com). Ken Salazar (pictured), the last of the secretaries of the Interior Department to inherit the mess, tells The Salt Lake Tribune: "In a larger sense we are here to right a past wrong, to forge a solution to an ongoing and worsening problem, and lay out a path to responsible management of Indian trust in the 21st Century." Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, applauds Salazar's work, as well as that of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder: "The financial mismanagement of American Indian trust accounts has long plagued relations between the U.S. Government and American Indians," McCain says. Extensive archives of the case are available on the Justice Department's Web site. Back in August, 5280.com contributor Joshua Zaffos looked at the Oglala Sioux effort to reclaim its territory and its culture for High Country News.