Senator Walsh’s No Nonsense Approach to Resolving Cobell
Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) is tired of hearing excuses about why it has taken so long for money from the $3.4 billion Cobell trust settlement to make it into the hands of Native Americans.
Yes, an initial payment of $1,000 went out to Indian class members December 2012; but since then Walsh says the Department of the Interior has been sluggish in helping get the second payment out by timely verifying those who are eligible. And Interior, he notes with added chagrin, has also received much tribal criticism regarding its slow progress in carrying out the $1.9 billion land buy-back component of the deal that’s supposed to reduce land fractionation on many reservations.
Walsh introduced legislation in May that’s intended to both speed up the second payment and strengthen the buy-back program, allowing more tribal control over it and placing the money in an interest-bearing account that would grow more money for Indian country.
In a recent interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Walsh expanded on his Cobell concerns:
Since you introduced your legislation, there has been some positive movement from Interior speeding up land buy-back offers to tribes. Are you disappointed that you had to introduce such legislation in the first place?
I am. The people believed that this settlement was moving forward. I’m disappointed in the administration’s actions to not carry out in good faith what was supposed to happen.
Who should be faulted?
The Department of the Interior.
Did you communicate with the Department before introducing your legislation?
No, I didn’t. You know one of the first trips that I took after I was sworn in [in February], Sen. [Jon] Tester [D-Mont.] and I traveled around visiting with the different tribes. These were issues that were brought up on numerous occasions. When we came back and talked about it, I felt we need to do something. So we introduced the legislation.
What were your Native constituents telling you?
First of all, they were concerned that this money was just sitting there. It isn’t drawing interest. And as it is right now, if the money isn’t allocated in 10 years, it will go back to the Department of Treasury. There is a lot of concern from Indian country that the timeline will not be met, and the money will be lost.
What’s your understanding of why the Department of the Interior has been taking longer than you would like on these matters?
They didn’t have a process in place to distribute the resources. That’s one of the things this bill does. There is already a process here. It just isn’t being used. It’s called the 638 contracting process. My bill would allow Interior to use the 638 process to distribute these funds. This process would give the tribes more buy-in and control, and then things would go much better and smoother.
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