Checks in Native American settlement delayed again

More than 490,000 Indians are still waiting for settlement monies due them from the federal government. It’s a disgrace.

The payments are part of a settlement of a class action lawsuit on behalf of tens of thousands of American Indians who charged that for more than 100 years they had been defrauded of royalties for land that the government had placed “in trust” for them. The lawsuit was filed in 1996 by Eloise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, who died in 2011.

After incredible legal wrangling Congress approved a settlement figure of $3.4 billion in November 2010. In December 2012 the first round of checks for $1,000 each were sent to the Native American holders of the trust accounts. The second, final round  of payments are for about $800 each. The final settlement monies were to be paid before last Christmas, as the government originally said, but now will not arrive until sometime in 2014, maybe not until next December, according to the latest announcements. Many in the Native community question whether that is believable.

Many Native families were looking forward to a better Yuletide with children unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. For poor Indian families, with children expecting a jubilant holiday, having to at the last minute struggle for holiday presents because of another broken government promise only made the delay doubly cruel.

These are token payments  to represent royalties – for oil, timber, grazing – that should have been paid by the Department of Interior since 1887. The $3.4 billion settlement was forced on the Indian plaintiffs. Keep in mind that thousands of eligible Native recipients opted out, refusing to accept what they saw as a disgraceful settlement. Relatives of mine and others I know opted out, considering the settlement a gross insult.  

Does $3.4 billion sound like a lot of money? Not when the true amount of loss, with interest, was over $179 billion. According to informed sources each Native plaintiff should have received at least $100,000 if there had been a just settlement. The $1,000 per person of the initial payment would not even buy a decent used car. This is what the U.S. government thinks of Native Americans.

This disgraceful settlement was approved by Congress and signed by President Obama, who said he thought it was “fair.”           

The purpose of the lawsuit was to obtain a just settlement to improve to some extent the quality of life for poverty-stricken Native American families. The first payment of $1,000 obviously did not make a difference. The second payment of $800 is equally paltry.

The $3.4 billion settlement must also been seen in context with other issues. For example, in the Iraq war $12 billion was spent per month. In just one week, the U.S, government spent as much on the Iraq conflict as it did to settle an Indian lawsuit that it fought tooth and nail for 16 years. This is a grotesque, obscene injustice.

Some issues can never be adequately addressed. Over the 127 years since 1887, Native Americans have lived in a nightmare of hopelessness, deprivation and intergenerational trauma generated in part by abject poverty. Poverty stifles; abject poverty kills. Just think how the just payment of money due over this time span could have alleviated some of that misery. Consider how many countless lives – adults , children and the elderly – could have been altered and saved.

Currently, on many reservations the suicide rate among teenagers and young adults is the highest in the Western Hemisphere. This again is the result of generations of malevolent, intentional, genocidal poverty inflicted on Native Americans by an endless succession of U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican.

Make no mistake, the verdict of history shall judge this settlement harshly, as a blot on the Obama presidency and on the U.S. as a whole. It will be to the everlasting ignominy of this government that no fair settlement was reached, only more dishonor attached to a system already covered with the gore of generations of victimized Native Americans.

The thousands of American Indians who opted out are ready to file another lawsuit, mindful of the fact that a just resolution will not be seen in their lifetimes. Moreover, in early May, many tribes started petitions demanding to be “paid now” on the final monies due. Never has so much been owed to so many, who have received so little.

Photo: This photo hangs in the lobby of the Prairie Wind Hotel & Restaurant, operated by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, South Dakota. Melanie Bender/PW


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He was an organizer and delegate to the First and Second Intercontinental Indian Conferences held in Quito, Ecuador and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Recently, he has been an active participant and reporter in the Standing Rock struggle in North Dakota. He is an attorney and is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty. He is also writing a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war of the late 20th century. He is also the recipient of several Eagle Awards by the Tennessee Native American Eagle Organization and a former Director of Native American Legal Departments and a Tribal Public Defender.