Capitol Words a project of the Sunlight Foundation

  • and

Cobell Settlement

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan

legislator photo

Madam President, as we conclude our work prior to the August break, we are working very hard to try to address the Cobell settlement and the Pigford settlement, these settlements are the result of lawsuits that were filed, negotiations that ensued, and eventually reaching agreement to settle these two cases.

I would like to talk briefly about the Cobell settlement. To start, I want to show a photograph, a picture of a woman named Mary Fish. I wonder how anyone serving in this Chamber or how anyone in this country would feel had they been Mary Fish. She was an Oklahoma Indian. She lived in a small, humble home, never had very much. But she had a piece of property, 40 acres, and she had six oil wells on her land--six oil wells on her land.

How she got ``her land'' dates back to 1887 when the Federal Government first divided up tribal lands and gave individual Indians separate parcels of land and then said to the Indians: You know what. We are going to give you separate parcels of land that will be yours. But, we are going to manage them for you. We will hold them in trust and provide income from your land to you.

So poor Mary Fish, an Oklahoma Indian, had six oil wells on her land and lived a humble life and died a few years ago waiting, waiting for justice, justice that she never received. The Federal Government never explained to Mary how much oil was being pumped from the wells on her land.

Even with all of the oil wells on her land, Mary made only a few dollars a year from six wells. At one point she got a check from the Federal Government for 6 cents. Another time she got a check from the Federal Government for $3. One time she got a check for $3,000. Another time, although oil was still being produced, one of the statements that Mary received showed a negative $5 in her account.

She died waiting for the government to account for the royalties on her land, and for this legislation that would settle this matter. She died waiting for justice.

So what is the Cobell settlement, and what does it have to do with Mary Fish and all the oil produced from her land. The Cobell settlement is an agreement reached by the Secretary of the Interior and the all of the plaintiffs in the Cobell lawsuit--individual Indians like Mary. I am going to speak about the Cobell settlement, and a couple of colleagues are going to talk about the Pigford settlement. We are here today talking about settling both of these issues.

The Cobell settlement established deadlines for the Congress to act. The Court wants to see this matter resolved. The current deadline for Congress is August 6. We have already missed six deadlines established by the federal court. And if Congress does not act, the parties will return back to litigation, litigation that has gone on now for almost 15 years in the federal courts.

As I indicated, this situation in the Cobell case resulted from a century of mismanagement of Indian trust accounts. I want to show a photograph of the way trust records of the accounts for the individual Indians were kept on one Indian reservation--rat-infested warehouses with boxes laying all over. They would not be able to find a piece of paper in this pile to save their souls. And this is how the government kept records for individual Indian trust accounts. The result is, so many Indians were cheated. Yes, there have been circumstances in the last century in which Indians were systematically cheated and looted. Grand theft occurred, a substantial amount of money was made off these lands. Someone else got it, the Indians did not. After all these years, it is long past the time for us to agree to settle these grievances.

The government has long known about the problem. In 1915, a government report identified ``fraud, corruption and incompetence in the management of these Indian trust accounts.'' That was in 1915. In 1992, a House report compared the federal government's management of Indian trust accounts to ``a bank that doesn't know how much money it has.''

Finally, in 1994, Congress passed a law requiring that the government account for the money it was managing for American Indians, and then 2 years later, where there was still nothing being done and no progress, Elouise Cobell filed a case asking the government to follow the law.

Elouise Cobell is a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. She is quite a remarkable woman. Like many American Indians, she grew up hearing stories of government checks and how the checks never made any sense. The checks arrived once in a while and were in amounts no one understood or could explain.

In 1996, she filed a lawsuit. Her lawsuit said: Give me an accounting of the money that you have collected from my lands, and do the same for every other American Indian. That was in 1996.

We are now in the year 2010, and finally agreement has been reached by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Justice to settle these accounts. It was 10 years ago when the court ruled against the Federal Government. The Federal Court said the Federal Government was wrong; they mismanaged these accounts, and violated the trust. Yes, there has been corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement.

So 10 years ago, the Federal court ruled against the Federal Government, saying the Federal Government had lost, damaged, destroyed trust records, and the Federal Government admitted it could not account for these trust moneys. After all of this, the government had the nerve to spend taxpayers' money to appeal the court's decision. So it goes on and on and on. Millions have been spent in endless litigation with no settlement in sight.

Finally, last December, and agreement was reached in settlement talks with the Interior Department and the Indians that resulted a settlement and this legislation to approve the settlement.

I want to just mention a couple of other brief points. I know a couple of colleagues wish to make some comments today.

The judge, when hearing of the settlement between the Federal Government and the Cobell plaintiffs, said the agreement was a win/win and that justice is on hold. That is what this is about. It is about providing the funding to settle the Cobell case and provide some amount of justice.

Others will talk about settling the Pigford case.

I will very briefly say again a lot of American Indians have died waiting for this moment. There are other stories I want to share.

This is Susie White Calf. She is a Blackfeet Indian from Montana. This picture was taken in 2001, the same year the courts found the Federal Government had broken its responsibility to Indians. Six years later, she passed away, in 2007. She will not get justice. But perhaps we can provide justice for tens of thousands of other Indians by doing the right thing.

I have other things to say, but I know some of my colleagues wish to say a few words. If I might, the Senator from Arkansas has to be away from the Chamber very briefly. She wanted to say a few words. Then I know that Senator Kyl and some others wish to say some other words as well.

The Senator from Arkansas.