Mary Alice Addison is raising her five grandchildren. Her daughter died too young.
Money is tight. Addison and her grandchildren were each owed a $1,000 check from the $3.2 billion Cobell settlement between the Department of the Interior and American Indians who have a stake in trust land. Addison received her check. Three of her grandchildren did not. They are younger than 18 and cannot receive their shares until they are legal adults.
“They need the money now,” Addison said.
Addison, a tribal elder and member of the Northern Arapaho Credit Committee, wanted to take her grandchildren shopping for new clothes with the money. Addison said the Bureau of Indian Affairs told her it would reimburse her grandchildren if they could produce receipts.
There’s not enough money to get the receipts in the first place, she said. Other expenses took priority.
The Cobell case was one of the largest class-action lawsuits and settlements in the history of the nation. The case began when the late Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana found it unjust that tribal members with trust land weren’t paid when the federal government leased the land to third parties for mining, drilling and grazing.
The BIA and the Department of the Interior kept lease documents in barns, used shoddy computers and failed in their obligation as a fiduciary to give tribal members the highest rate of return possible for their land, according to court testimony. Cobell brought the class action suit against the government in 1996. She died in October 2011. The case was settled in December 2012 and the first round of checks started going to tribal members across the country.
The settlement was seen as a victory for American Indians and a harbinger that relations with the federal government were improving. Since the settlement, though, new problems have emerged.
The Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation have received about $4 million from the settlement. Another $8 million will be coming to the reservation in late summer, said David Smith, legal counsel for Kilpatrick Townsend, the law firm that prosecuted the case. Some who received the first round of payments won’t receive the second. Some will. The second round of payments depends on how much revenue was collected in the rent or sale of trust land and what types of leases the government issued to third parties. Tribal members who leased their land to golf courses or large energy companies, for example, will see more money than others. When tribal members accept money from the settlement, they can’t file future claims of mismanagement.
For the first round, tribal members were entitled to a payment if they had leased their land between October 1994 and September 2009. Whether tribal members leased one acre or 10,000 acres of trust land, they were owed a $1,000 check.
“Some people gained big; others lost big,” said Kay Taylor, a financial consultant for the Northern Arapaho Tribe.
The big winners were those with fractionated tracts of land, said Ivan Posey, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council.
Fractionation started near the end of the 19th century with the General Allotment Act of 1887. Lawmakers in Washington divided reservations and allotted 54 million acres of trust land to tribes as a way to integrate American Indians into society. There are only 11 million acres of trust land today. The land’s been sold by trust beneficiaries and, in many cases, the federal government. The original recipients of the trust land passed it down from generation to generation, dividing the land into smaller and smaller portions among growing families.
“Cobell was worthwhile for those who are on a 40-acre tract with 150 people on it,” Posey said.
Conversely, those who had a 40-acre tract with one person on it only received a $1,000 check, Posey said.
The federal government considers fractionated land useless because it’s so divided. The Cobell settlement established a federal buyback program in which the government would pay to have trust holders relinquish their land to the government, according to the Department of the Interior.
Meanwhile, 90 percent of eligible tribal members received the first round of checks, Smith said. Some haven’t received the money because of probate issues. The whereabouts of others are unknown.
“Problems still exist, but the case went a long way to rectify them,” he said.
Tribal members who say they are owed money but haven’t received payment aren’t surprised.
Harrison Shoyo Jr. is the vice chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council. He’s waiting for his check.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.
Curtis Addison, a nephew of Mary Addison and a member of the Northern Arapaho Credit Committee, said he meets the qualifications to receive the next round of payments late this summer.
He said the BIA told him he was ineligible.
“For as much as the tribes have been raped and pillaged, this settlement isn’t even close,” Curtis Addison said.
There's also concern about the fact that Cobell money isn't helping fuel reservation economies.
Since the Wind River Reservation lacks shopping malls, auto dealerships, mechanics, restaurants and supermarkets among other things, tribal members traveled off the reservation to spend their money. Few tribal members complained about having extra cash in their pockets. But in the end, the cash landed in the hands of nontribal members — mostly business owners in Fremont County towns.
“The biggest beneficiaries are Lander and Riverton,” said Darwin St. Clair Jr., chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council. “It’s nice to have some extra cash. But this isn’t a life-changer.”
It was an unexpected shot in the arm for local businesses, said Jim Davis, director of the Riverton Chamber of Commerce.
“After that first round there wasn’t a TV, washer or dryer in town,” he said.