Before you decide to throw rocks at Carol Good Bear, Kimberly Craven, Charles Colombe, or Mary Lee Johns, the four plaintiffs appealing the Cobell settlement, stop and think about it because these four souls may be the last line of defense between you and another government rip-off.
Two of the complaints say the settlement does not include an accounting for how much money was lost. This is what Cobell's original suit set out to prove and they say that many of the class action members did not understand that they could have opted out of the entire settlement. The others object to the class of landowners that the settlement creates because they believe that each is different. They also believe that the Indian nations should have been involved in the process from the beginning.
What started out as a lawsuit that would address all of the land, oil, timber, money, grazing and other resources ripped off from the Indian people and the tribes for all of these years was pared down for expediency and rolled into the pitiful settlement that eventually evolved.
And now rather than address the very legitimate complaints of the four plaintiffs, the case has become one of finger pointing and accusations that overlook the main objections of the plaintiffs.
A year ago I wrote about one of the areas of the settlement that was extremely onerous. The settlement gives $2 billion to the government to buy up fractionated tribal lands from individuals willing to sell and then turn them over to the tribes. We are talking about $2 billion, which is two-thirds of the money secured in the settlement. This amounts to taking $2 billion and giving it back to the very government responsible for creating the mess in the beginning. It was the Bureau of Indian Affairs that failed so miserably to adequately maintain the land records which became such a mess that in some cases there are hundreds of relatives owning a single 160-acre allotment. Talk about fractionated. The poorly maintained records and the lack of a system to probate the wills of the Indian landowners was the main reason the land is so fractionated and it is the very government now willing to take $2 billion from the cash poor Indians to straighten out the mess they created that really bothers me and many, many Indian people.
Do you see the ridiculous joke that is being played upon the Indian people? It goes like this: "You (Indians) won $3.4 billion from us thieves, but we believe you should give us back $2 billion of that money so we can straighten out the land mess we made while we were stealing from you."
The Cobell attorneys, led by Dennis Gingold of Washington, D.C., wrote a letter on Jan. 20 that says, "The hopes and wishes of 500,000 individual Indians had been delayed by those four people. If it weren't for them the first payments would have been made before Thanksgiving."
When Gingold accused the complainants of not sharing the desires of the 99.9 percent who support a prompt conclusion to "this long-running acrimonious case," what was he trying to say?
The Indian people entered this case with high hopes. At one time a settlement could have been reached without litigation and the outcome would have put more than $10 billion into the hands of the poorest people in America, and without all of the deal-making that finally deprived the Indian people of those extra billions.
How much money will eventually go to those Indian individuals Mr. Gingold is so concerned about? $1,000? $2,000? How about just enough to buy a good used car? The federal government is responsible for the theft of untold billions from the Indian people and to offer them a pittance and then demand that two-thirds of it is returned to clean up a mess they made is simply ludicrous.
The ways and means of achieving the settlement were never clearly made to the 500,000 plaintiffs in the case. The plaintiffs had no input in how the money was to be divided and disbursed. Should it not be the job of the attorneys in any case to keep the plaintiffs informed and to ask for their input?
Elouise Cobell is no longer with us. She died last year and she will never see the end results of the case she pushed for nearly 16 years. The Indian people have waited for more than 100 years and the one thing they have learned in dealing with the federal government is patience.
Appeals must be heard by a federal appeals court before any money can be distributed. The first appeals court hearing will take place on Feb. 16 in Washington, D.C. at the U. S. District Court of Appeals. For all Indians that can afford to be there, please be there.
So put that rock back in your pocket because Good Bear, Craven, Colombe and Johns may be your last hope to get a just and deserving settlement from the United States government after centuries of dishonor. Do not put a lid on this settlement for a few ounces of silver.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net)