On the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation — Today is the deadline for American Indians and their descendants to take part in a $3.4 billion settlement with the federal government over the mismanagement of Indian land and money.
In Minnesota, the settlement will distribute $57 million to more than 35,000 tribal members.
Earlier this month, Arlene Weous, who lives on the Mille Lacs reservation in central Minnesota, called the Bureau of Indian Affairs to file her claim. She will be among thousands of American Indian around the country taking part in the Cobell settlement — named after a member of Montana’s Blackfeet Tribe, who sued the federal government over its accounting practices related to tribal lands.
Weous, who has lived on the reservation for 54 years, said the settlement will close a long and unjust chapter in the relationship between the U.S. government and Indian tribes.
“The federal government has said that ‘yes we did this; we admit our mistakes,’ “ she said. “We’ll accept that now.”
More than 125 years ago, the federal government divided up reservations, giving land to individual tribal members. Federal officials then proceeded to manage the land on behalf of its tribal owners — including revenues generated from timber sales and mining. The money was managed in individual Indian accounts.
But the federal government was a very poor steward. A 1996 lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell and other plaintiffs aimed to expose the mismanagement by seeking a complete accounting record of individual tribal member’s accounts.
For years, the lawsuit festered, worsening relations between Indian Country and the federal government. In 2009, the federal government and the plaintiff’s announced a $3.4 billion settlement.
Under its terms, the government agreed to spend $1.9 billion to reconsolidate land and return it tribal ownership, an effort that is just getting underway. The government also agreed to set aside $60 million for an American Indian college scholarship fund.
The government also agreed to pay nearly $1.5 billion to compensate American Indians for the poor accounting and possible errors. But to benefit, tribal members must meet today’s deadline.
Already over 200,000 tribal members nation-wide have received $1,000 check if they have ownership in land that generates income.
Other tribal members may have an account, but don’t necessarily own land that generates income. Under the settlement, those tribal members are eligible for at least $800, but must file a claim with the Bureau of Indian Affairs by the end of the day.
“Those folks have to make sure they raise their hand to get those payments,” said David Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior Department.
He said those members are eligible because it’s possible the government could have done more to help make the land profitable.
“This historical attention the United States government paid to these individual Indian interests — for which we have a trust responsibility — that historical attention was less than ideal and we acknowledge that,” Hayes said. “We want to provide compensation for that, we want to turn the page.”
Despite the government’s willingness to right its wrongs, the process hasn’t been without confusion.
Weous, of the Mille Lacs band, said she has spoken to most of her family about the settlement, and some may not get a settlement check.
“There’s about 40 adults in my family, my immediate family, and there’s probably 12 right now that are going to get compensation,” she said. “So what happened to the other 28?”
There are similar stories across the reservation. Some family members will receive checks, while others won’t, said Michele Palomaki, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s assistant commissioner for administration.
“Some are being told ‘your name has to be on the paper work,’ and some are being told it doesn’t if you can list off family members who’ve received a check,” Palomaki said. “We’ve heard that even. ‘Can you tell us, what family members?’ And you make a list of that and that’s kind of how they track you down too. But that’s not said to every one of us.”
Palomaki said the lawsuit is between the federal government and individuals, so the band doesn’t have records. But beyond that, Palomaki said there could be heirs who are eligible for the settlement, but don’t even know their heir to an account.
“There’s a lot of confusion,” she said. “It’s not as clear as we would’ve liked it to be.”
According to the Interior Department there are a variety of reasons an individual may not qualify for the lawsuit. Regardless, both the agency and Palomaki are advising tribal members if there is any doubt to file a claim today.
Despite the confusion, Palomaki said the settlement represents a positive thing. She said it will bring dollars to the band’s members.
“They will use that as they see fit, whether it’s for themselves or their families,” she said. “And it’s positive in the sense that, again, this brings closure. It’s a good end to a chapter in our Native American history.”
Last April, the Obama administration announced a separate $1 billion settlement. It too resolved century-old accounting disputes for tribal dollars that were mismanaged by the federal government. The main difference in that settlement is the money went to tribes.
-- Conrad Wilson, MPR News 91.3 FM